Tuesday, March 3, 2015

A Delaware Law Insider: A Nexus between Shareholder Activism & Hobby Lobby?

The Fordham Journal of Corporate and Financial Law recently published a March 6, 2014, lecture from Former Delaware Supreme Court Chief Justice Myron T. Steele, Continuity and Change in Delaware Corporate Law Jurisprudence (available on Westlaw, but fee may apply).  As an aside, I'll note that it appears to have taken a full calendar year for this to get published (at least on Westlaw), which seems crazy to me.  If there's any question why legal blogs can fill such a critical role in providing timely commentary on legal issues, this is a big part of the answer.

In the lecture, Chief Justice Steele discusses three main areas: (1) multi-forum jurisdiction, (2) shareholder activism, and (3) the Nevada, Delaware, and North Dakota Debate (a "competition for charters"). 

As to multi-forum jurisdiction, he makes the unsurprising point that Delaware courts are of the view that first impressions of the Delaware General Corporation Law or other "internal affairs doctrine" issues should be handled in Delaware courts.  Of note, he explains that the Delaware constitution (art. IV, § 11(8)) now allows federal courts, the top court from any state, the SEC, and bankruptcy courts to certify questions directly to the Delaware Supreme Court.  This option is one that lawyers litigating such cases in other forums won't want to miss.    

With regard to shareholder activism, Chief Justice Steele states, 

In my preferred system for the world, and I think in the minds of all Delaware judges, engaged if not antagonistic stockholders add positive value as a check on director authority and are a catalyst for corrective accountability, so long as their efforts focus on improved performance and not the advancement of political or personal agendas--a major caveat in my view. Delaware courts, it seems to me, will increasingly recognize the benefits that engaged investors bring to the table.

This is an interesting take, and it seems consistent with my read of most Delaware law. I am of the view that shareholders should have a lot of latitude to engage and even agitate, if they wish, as long as they follow the rules they agreed to in the corporate charter and bylaws (and applicable state law, of course).  There is concern that a court might determine an action to be political or personal in nature if it something with which the court does not agree, but that could happen on the political left or right, and judgment is always a risk at some point.  Delaware courts are usually up to the task.
 
Chief Justice Steele's view on this lends further credence to a view I have held since the Burwell v. Hobby Lobby Stores decision came out: Delaware corporations cannot use the Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA) to justify their business decisions.  That is, RFRA applies in Delaware, but RFRA does not pre-empt Delaware corporations law, so RFRA cannot be used as a rationale for decision making, at least where a shareholder objects. In Hobby Lobby, Justice Alito wrote:
State corporate law provides a ready means for resolving any conflicts by, for example, dictating how a corporation can establish its governing structure. See, e.g.ibid; id., §3:2; Del. Code Ann., Tit. 8, §351 (2011) (providing that certificate of incorporation may provide how “the business of the corporation shall be managed”). Courts will turn to that structure and the underlying state law in resolving disputes.
Combine this with Chief Justice Steele's warning against company governance for the "advancement of political or personal agendas" and recent cases requiring Delaware corporation to seek profit, it seems Delaware courts are skeptical of non-profit-seeking rationales for shareholder or director action.  As Chancellor Chandler explained in eBay v. Newmark (more here):

The corporate form in which [an Delaware corporation] operates, however, is not an appropriate vehicle for purely philanthropic ends, at least not when there are other stockholders interested in realizing a return on their investment. . . . Having chosen a for-profit corporate form, . . . directors are bound by the fiduciary duties and standards that accompany that form. Those standards include acting to promote the value of the corporation for the benefit of its stockholders.

Thus, in Delaware a for-profit corporation cannot promote or practice the religious views of even a majority of directors or shareholders where such actions do not promote the value of the corporation for shareholders. 

Finally, as to the Nevada, Delaware, North Dakota debate, Chief Justice Steele questions the value of Nevada allowing "charters to exculpate directors for breaches of duty of loyalty," because he thinks such a massive change in widely held views of fiduciary duty law could invite federal "meddling."  I think he's exactly right on this.  He notes with skepticism the North Dakota Publicly Traded Corporations Act because there are only two companies that have adopted the law, but the law's failure in the competition for charter does not raise the same concerns of a race to the bottom (my words) that Nevada's law provides.

I think Chief Justice Steele's article provides interesting and useful insight into the workings of the Delaware court system, and I recommend the sort read.  I just wish I had seen it about nine months ago.  

March 3, 2015 in Business Associations, Corporate Governance, Corporate Personality, Corporations, Delaware, Joshua P. Fershee, Social Enterprise | Permalink | Comments (0)

Thursday, February 26, 2015

Markets and Boycotts Part 2

Last week, I posted about Walmart’s ballyhooed wage hike and asked whether boycotts and activism actually work. Apparently, the President was so impressed that he called the company’s CEO to thank him. Some Walmart workers, however, aren’t as pleased because without more hours, they still can’t make ends meet. Nonetheless, TJX, the parent company of retailers TJ Maxx and Home Goods announced yesterday that its employees would also receive a pay raise. Is this altruism? Have the retail giants caved to pressure?

As some commented on the blog last week and to me privately, it’s more likely that these megaretailers have implemented these “pro-employee” moves to reduce turnover, raise morale, and most important compete in a tightening job market. But one LinkedIn commenter from Australia believes that boycotts in general can work, stating:

My experience with having organised boycotts is that they work, but they take time. They create the conditions for public awareness of corporate activities, and put pressure on the company to change. They are effectively the 'bad cop' of civil society pressure. Consequently, they do not work on their own, requiring also the 'good cop' - civil society organisations and market conditions that allow the subject of the boycott to shift behaviour. Market conditions include a broader 'meta boycott' in which companies needing access to supply chains must change because supply chains have changed, only accepting product that is acceptable to CSOs (the 'good' CSOs, who have certification programmes, and other initiatives for the company to opt for. If you are looking for a case study of these conditions, I suggest you follow the Tasmanian forest industry debate in Australia. Here, an entire industry was worn down after years of boycotts, market campaigns, and demands from purchasers for FSC certified product only. The fascinating addendum to this case study is the state government (and the Federal government, unsuccessfully), are still advocating behaviours that not even the companies want. They want to sign the 'peace deal' and the government(s) are trying to prolong the 'war' - for political, election-related issues. All this indicates that boycotts do not work in isolation, and if they do they are less likely to work. 

Investors too are putting pressure on companies. Just yesterday, a group of 60 investors with four trillion in assets under management called for companies to do more for workers' human rights, including wages. Because I study business and human rights with a special emphasis on labor issues, I will wait to see what happens with all of this pressure. I will also monitor the share price, shareholder proposals, and whether there is any evidence that consumers reward Walmart and TJX for their better treatment of workers.  

February 26, 2015 in Corporate Governance, Corporations, CSR, Current Affairs, Financial Markets, Marcia Narine, Securities Regulation | Permalink | Comments (0)

Monday, February 23, 2015

Benefit Corporations: What am I Missing--Seriously?

I serve on the Tennessee Bar Association Business Entity Study Committee (BESC) and Business Law Section Executive Committee (mouthfuls, but accurately descriptive).  The BESC was originated to vet proposed changes to business entity statutes in Tennessee.  It was initially populated by members of the Business Law Section and the Tax Law Section, although it's evolved to mostly include members of the former with help from the latter.  The Executive Committee of the Business Law Section reviews the work of the BESC before Tennessee Bar Association leadership takes action.

Just about every legislative session of late, these committees of the Tennessee Bar Association have been asked to review proposed legislation on benefit corporations (termed variously depending on the sponsors).  A review request for a bill proposed for adoption for this session recently came in.  Since I serve on both committees, I get to see these proposed bills all the time.  So far, the proposals have pretty much tracked the B Lab model from a substantive perspective, as tailored to Tennessee law.  To date, we have advised the Tennessee Bar Association that we do not favor this proposed legislation.  Set forth below is a summary of the rationale I usually give.

Continue reading

February 23, 2015 in Business Associations, Corporate Finance, Corporate Governance, Corporations, Current Affairs, Entrepreneurship, Haskell Murray, Joan Heminway, Social Enterprise | Permalink | Comments (16)

Friday, February 20, 2015

Did Wal-Mart Prove Me Wrong? Do Boycotts Work?

I have just finished a draft of an article arguing that disclosures don’t work because consumers and investors don’t read them, can’t understand them, don't take any real action when they do pay attention to them, and fail to change corporate behavior when they do threaten boycott. I specifically pointed out the relative lack of success of consumer protests over the years. I also noted that Wal-Mart continues to get bad press for how it treats its employees despite the fact the Norwegian Pension Fund divested hundreds of millions of dollars due to the company’s labor practices, prompting other governments and cities to follow. My thesis—it takes a lot more than divestment and threats of boycott to change company behavior. But perhaps I’m wrong. Yesterday, Wal-Mart CEO Doug McMillon announced a significant wage increase declaring:

We’re strengthening investments in our people to engage and inspire them to deliver superior customer experiences… We will earn the trust of all Walmart stakeholders by operating great retail businesses, ensuring world-class compliance, and doing good in the world through social and environmental programs in our communities.

The letter to Wal-Mart associates is here. I don’t know which was more striking, the $1 billion dollar move to $9 and then eventually $10 per hour or the fact that he used the word “stakeholders.” Wal-Mart also announced changes that would affect health insurance and shift scheduling, but the main headline concerned the wage hike. Main Street may be happy but Wall Street was not, and the stock price fell after the announcement. Others pointed out that the pay raise is still not enough to pull workers out of poverty.

Does this move mean that boycotts and advocacy really do work and that we will see more of them? Do I have to edit my article or will this be an anomaly? Will other big retailers or fast food chains follow? Will socially responsible investors reinvest in Wal-Mart? Is Wal-Mart trying to pre-empt government regulation on the minimum wage? Is Wal-Mart signaling to regulators in foreign countries that it cares about workers so should be allowed to operate there more freely? 

I will be teaching a course in transnational business and international human rights in the Fall and Wal-Mart will be a case study. A few years ago, I used the company’s CSR report in my corporate governance, compliance, and social responsibility seminar.  I asked the students to consider why Wal-Mart’s report looked and felt so different from Target’s, which essentially has many of the same labor issues. I wanted them to think about the marketing behind CSR from a reputational and regulatory perspective. I posited that Wal-Mart’s CSR report was written for regulators. Two weeks later, the company announced its massive and still ongoing bribery investigation. I’m happy for the workers but a bit curious as to what caused the company to make this announcement now. In the meantime, I will be watching the reaction from advocates, the markets, and other companies closely.  

February 20, 2015 in Corporate Governance, Corporations, CSR, Current Affairs, Ethics, Financial Markets, International Business, Marcia Narine, Teaching | Permalink | Comments (3)

Wednesday, February 11, 2015

Proxy Season: A Gendered View & A Book Recommendation

Andrew Ross Sorkin at the DealBook in his column, Do Activist Investors Target Women C.E.O.'s?, asked earlier this week  if the gender of the CEO influences the target of activist shareholders.  

Only 23 women lead companies in the Standard & Poor’s 500-stock index. Yet at least a quarter of them have fallen into the cross hairs of activist investors.

The article references Patricia Sellers observations in Fortune last month regarding corporate raider Nelson Peltz and his targeted attacks on PepsiCo lead by Indra Nooyi and Mondelez International lead by CEO Irene Rosenfeld as well as his current demands on DuPont, with Ellen Kullman as chairman and CEO.

In the absence of correlating data about female CEO's and weaker company performance, the question lingers is there something besides performance that prompts the targeting of these companies?  To explain the question the article references several studies that report perception differences in competence, risk and performance based solely on gender, with, women on the losing end of these perception biases.

As I think is a common tendency, I gravitate towards information that relates to what I am personally thinking about, experiencing or interested in at the moment.  Earlier on this blog, I wrote about gender issues in the classroom.  On my current reading list, is the book What Works for Women at Work written by Joan Williams and Rachel Dempsey, that (1) reviews the existing literature about pervasive gender bias, (2) articulates how unconscious bias influences outcomes (acknowledging that for the most part society has moved past explicit and overt gender discrimination), (3) identifies four patterns where these biases consistently emerge based in part on her interviews with 127 "successful" women, and (4) discusses how the workplace (meaning men and women) can move beyond the limitations of these implicit biases.  Several colleagues and friends are reading this book along with me as well.  And the best part:  not everyone reading the book is (and not everyone should be) a women.  

-Anne Tucker

February 11, 2015 in Anne Tucker, Corporate Governance, Corporations, Current Affairs | Permalink | Comments (2)

Monday, February 9, 2015

Hot Off the Press: Heminway and Narine on Teaching Business Law!

With Marcia's blessing, I am promoting a recently published transcript of a conference panel on which she and I presented last spring.  The title of the published transcript?  "Representing Entities: The Value of Teaching Students How to Draft Board Resolutions and Other Similar Documentation."  Here's the top line from the SSRN abstract:

This edited transcript comprises a panel presentation and related Q&A at "Educating the Transactional Lawyer of Tomorrow," Emory University School of Law's biennial transactional law conference held June 6-7, 2014. The transcript includes Professor Heminway's talk and a separate presentation by Professor Marcia Narine on "How to Make Transactional Law Less Terrifying and a Bit More Interesting." The panel, "Transactional Drafting: Beyond Contracts," features approaches to teaching transactional business law courses. 

Enjoy!

February 9, 2015 in Business Associations, Conferences, Corporate Governance, Corporations, Joan Heminway, Marcia Narine | Permalink | Comments (0)

Thursday, February 5, 2015

The SEC's Inaction on No Action

Many corporate governance professionals have been scratching their heads lately. In November, a federal judge in Delaware ruled that Wal-Mart had wrongfully excluded a shareholder proposal by Trinity Wall Street Church regarding the sale of guns and other products. Specifically, the proposal requested amendment of one of the Board Committee Charters to:

27. Provid[e] oversight concerning the formulation and implementation of, and the public reporting of the formulation and implementation of, policies and standards that determine whether or not the Company [i.e., Wal-Mart] should sell a product that:

1) especially endangers public safety and wellbeing;

2) has the substantial potential to impair the reputation of the Company; and/or

3) would reasonably be considered by many offensive to the family and community values integral to the Company's promotion of its brand. 

Wal-Mart filed with the SEC under Rule 14a-8 indicating that it planned to exclude the proposal under the ordinary business operations exclusion. The SEC agreed that there was a basis for exclusion under 14a-8(i)(7), but the District Court thought otherwise because the proposal related to a “sufficiently significant social policy.” In mid-January Wal-Mart appealed to the Third Circuit arguing among other things that the district court should have deferred to the SEC’s precedents and guidance over the past forty years on these issues.

In an unrelated but relevant matter in December 2014, the SEC issued a no action letter to Whole Foods stating:

You represent that matters to be voted on at the upcoming stockholders' meeting include a proposal sponsored by Whole Foods Market to amend Whole Foods Market's bylaws to allow any shareholder owning 9% or more of Whole Foods Market's common stock for five years to nominate candidates for election to the board and require Whole Foods Market to list such nominees with the board's nominees in Whole Foods Market's proxy statement. You indicate that the proposal and the proposal sponsored by Whole Foods Market directly conflict. You also indicate that inclusion of both proposals would present alternative and conflicting decisions for the stockholders and would create the potential for inconsistent and ambiguous results. Accordingly, we will not recommend enforcement action to the Commission if Whole Foods Market omits the proposal from its proxy materials in reliance on rule 14a-8(i)(9).

In a startling turn of events, the SEC withdrew its no action letter on January 16, 2015 after a January 9th letter from the Council of Institutional Investors questioning the reasoning in the Whole Foods and similar no action letters. The withdrawal of the no action letter came on the same day as the release an official SEC statement declining “to express a view on the application of Rule 14a-8(i)(9) during the current proxy season” due to questions about the scope and application of the rule.

Yesterday, the Center for Capital Market Competitiveness (“CCMC”), an arm of the Chamber of Commerce, sent its own letter to Chair White lamenting the current state of affairs. An excerpt is below:

This announcement, a contradictory departure from a decision made just weeks earlier, benefits neither issuers nor investors and introduces an additional layer of uncertainty into an already complicated set of rules. The CCMC believes this reversal underscores why corporate governance policies must provide certainty for all stakeholders, not just to advance the goals of a small minority of special interest activists….[t]he January 16 announcement places many issuers in an untenable position, and presents them with a series of questions for which there may be no good answers. For those issuers wishing to present their own alternative proposal to shareholders for consideration, do they exclude a shareholder proposal in favor of their own and face the heightened risk of litigation with the proponent or the Commission? Do they risk shareholder confusion by including both their own proposal and a competing one from a proponent? Do they incur the added expense and distraction to management of seeking declaratory relief in federal district court? Are shareholders deprived of their right to include a proposal that is omitted because of the absence of SEC action? Far from encouraging private ordering, the recent announcement will only serve to stymie it.

The CCMC also recommends a review of the entire 14a-8 process because, as the letter claims,  “it is well-known that the shareholder proposal process has been dominated by a small group of special interest activists, including groups affiliated with organized labor, certain religious orders, social and public policy advocates, and a handful of serial activists. These special interests use the shareholder proposal process to pursue their own idiosyncratic agendas, often far removed from the mainstream, as evidenced by the overall low approval rates of many shareholder proposals that are put to a vote. Indeed, mainstream institutional investors account for only one percent of shareholder proposals at the Fortune 250.” 

Reasonable people may disagree on how the CCMC characterizes the motives behind the shareholder proposals, but there can be no disagreement that the current SEC silence doesn't serve any constituency. Steve Bainbridge also has an informative post on this topic. Proxy season is coming up and shareholders and companies alike are awaiting a decision from the Third Circuit in the Wal-Mart action that could dramatically alter the landscape for shareholder proposals, possibly flooding the courts with expensive, protracted litigation. The timing couldn’t be worse for the SEC’s lack of action on no action letters.

 

 

 

 

February 5, 2015 in Corporate Finance, Corporate Governance, Corporations, Current Affairs, Delaware, Financial Markets, Marcia Narine, Securities Regulation, Social Enterprise | Permalink | Comments (0)

Thursday, January 29, 2015

A Proposal to Fix the Dodd-Frank Conflict Minerals Rule

I oppose the Dodd-Frank conflict minerals rule, which requires companies to conduct due diligence and report on their sourcing of certain minerals from the war-ravaged Democratic Republic of Congo and surrounding countries. As I have written before repeatedly on this blog, a law review article, and an amicus brief, it is a flawed “name and shame law” that assumes that consumers and investors will change their purchasing decisions based upon a corporate disclosure, which they may not read, understand, or care about. The name and shame portion of the law was struck down on First Amendment grounds, and the business lobby, the SEC, and the NGO community are eagerly awaiting a decision by the full DC Circuit Court of Appeals.

A disclosure law that does not take into account the true causes for the violence that has killed millions is not the most effective way to have a meaningful impact for the Congolese people. The Democratic Republic of Congo needs outside governments to provide more aid on security sector, criminal justice, education, and judicial reform at the very least. Indeed, the Congolese government is still trying to defeat the rebels that this law was meant to weaken (see here for example). I have strong feelings about the law as a former supply chain professional and an advisory board member of an NGO that operates in eastern DRC.

I am currently working on an article about the defects in disclosure laws that attempt to address human rights impacts, and the conflict minerals rule is one of them. In that context, I was excited to read a recent draft article entitled The Conflict Minerals Experiment by Professor Jeff Schwartz. Although I don't agree with his conclusion that the best way to fix the law is, among other things, to employ a disclose or explain approach and greater transparency (which I also discuss in my article), I do agree that reform and not necessarily repeal is in order. Schwartz’ article is particularly useful because he provides empirical evidence of the relative uselessness of the first round of corporate disclosures. I look forward to citing it in my upcoming piece. The abstract is below:

In Section 1502 of Dodd-Frank, Congress instructed the SEC to draft rules that would require public companies to report annually on whether their products contain certain Congolese minerals. This unprecedented legislation and the SEC rulemaking that followed have inspired an impassioned and ongoing debate between those who view these efforts as a costly blunder and those who view them as a measured response to human-rights abuses committed by the armed groups that control many mines in the Congo. 

This Article for the first time brings empirical evidence to bear on this controversy. I present data on the inaugural disclosures that companies submitted to the SEC. Based on a quantitative and qualitative analysis of these submissions, I argue that Congress’s hope of supply-chain transparency goes unfulfilled, but amendments to the rules could yield useful information without increasing compliance costs. The SEC filings expose key loopholes in the regulatory structure and illustrate the importance of fledgling institutional initiatives that trace and verify corporate supply chains. This Article’s proposal would eliminate the loopholes and refocus the transparency mandate on disclosure of the supply-chain information that has come to exist thanks to these institutional efforts.

 

January 29, 2015 in Corporate Governance, Corporations, CSR, Current Affairs, Financial Markets, International Business, Marcia Narine, Securities Regulation | Permalink | Comments (0)

Tuesday, January 27, 2015

Cunningham on Corporate Leadership: A Few Additional Thoughts

Lawrence Cunningham has written an interesting piece for the Wall Street Journal, The Secret Sauce of Corporate Leadership: Splitting the CEO and chairman jobs is beside the point. What’s needed is a skeptical No. 2.

Cunningham argues that measures to split the role of board chair and CEO largely miss the point because such a move, and similar moves, don't clearly lead to the desired goal.  He explains:

Research on the effects of splitting the chief and chairman roles shows that results can depend on where the split takes place: It tends to improve performance at struggling companies—but it impairs prosperous firms. Yet exact effects vary depending on the circumstances, such as whether the switch happened with the appointment of a new CEO or with the demotion of an incumbent.

The movement to split the two roles is part of corporate America’s tendency to address problems with procedural remedies such as expanding board size, adding independent directors, adopting a new code of ethics, updating firm compliance programs, and appointing a monitor to oversee it all. While such steps get attention and can improve an organization’s health, the informal norms that define a corporate culture are more powerful, and Bank of America is right to examine itself in the light of basic principles.

There is a better way to foster excellence in chief executives: Appoint a noncombative but skeptical partner as second in command. This model has been the secret sauce in outstanding corporate cultures at dozens of America’s best companies.

I have a few thoughts to add to this.  First, I agree that whether to allow a single person to hold the chair and CEO position is case dependent. I am inclined to defer to the board of directors on that decision, but if enough shareholders want the positions separate (or combined), more power to them.  

Second, I think there is a bigger issue at play here in corporate (and other group) decision making. That is, as a general matter, rules and policies should be made based on the desired goals and the long-term plans, and not based on an individual.  Thus, deciding to never allow a combined CEO and chair position because we don't want a particular person to hold the role is silly.  Just don't let that person have both roles.  Any time we create rules designed to punish (or benefit) a particular person, we often create unintended consequences that punish or benefit others in ways that were not contemplated.  

Finally, Cunningham is certainly correct when he says, "Effective corporate leaders also stress that a strong culture matters because it translates into economic gain."  That said, sometimes its seems some boards (and other entities and institutions seeking leaders) believe a strong culture can be built overnight.  Tweaking rules and policies can sometimes help, but trying to rush that culture sometimes simply ensures mediocrity.  Just ask the New York Jets

January 27, 2015 in Corporate Governance, Corporations, Joshua P. Fershee | Permalink | Comments (3)

Thursday, January 15, 2015

Top 25 tweets for business lawyers from AALS

Greetings from Dublin. Between the Guinness tour, the champagne afternoon tea, and the jet lag, I don’t have the mental energy to do the blog I planned to write with a deep analysis of the AALS conference in DC. I live tweeted for several days and here my top 25 tweets from the conference. I have also added some that I re-tweeted from sessions I did not attend. I apologize for any misspellings and for the potentially misleading title of this post:

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Next week I will write about the reason I'm in Dublin.

January 15, 2015 in Business Associations, Conferences, Corporate Finance, Corporate Governance, Corporate Personality, Corporations, CSR, Delaware, Financial Markets, Marcia Narine, Securities Regulation, Travel | Permalink | Comments (0)

Monday, January 12, 2015

Female Directors and Crowd Theory

I recently was afforded the opportunity to draft a short article for the William & Mary Journal of Women and the Law that combines my research on crowd theory (from the crowdfunding space) and my research on women and corporate governance.  The opportunity arose out of a celebration of the 20th anniversary of the journal, for which I had been a published author in the past.  (The journal published my article on women as investors in the context of securities fraud, Female Investors and Securities Fraud: Is the Reasonable Investor a Woman?, back in 2009.)

I just posted the recently released final version of the 20th anniversary article, entitled Women in the Crowd of Corporate Directors: Following, Walking Alone, and Meaningfully Contributing, to the Social Sciences Research Network.  My application of crowd theory to the gender composition of corporate boards of directors in this article does not provide significant new insights on the decision making of female corporate directors.  However, it does result in the observation that women on corporate boards may foster the establishment of new board structures and policies that have the potential to favorably impact board decision making.  The bottom line?  More--and more novel--research still is needed on the presence and contribution of women on corporate boards of directors.

My article represents a brief exploration, but I may well continue my work in this general area.  Accordingly, I would be interested in knowing about others doing similar or related research.  Let me know in the comments or by email message if you would like to alert me to your relevant research and writing.

January 12, 2015 in Business Associations, Corporate Governance, Corporations, Joan Heminway | Permalink | Comments (0)

Friday, January 9, 2015

A Few Recent Delaware Cases

There are many Delaware cases from 2014 that are worth reading, but below are three relatively recent Delaware cases that I found worthwhile.  I provide the case name, my very short takeaway, and links to the case and additional commentary for those who wish to dive deeper.

In re Zhongpin Inc. Stockholders Litigation, controlling stockholders, decided Nov. 26, 2014. In denying a motion to dismiss, the Delaware Court of Chancery found a reasonable inference that a 17.3% stockholder/CEO could be a “controlling stockholder.” I have not done an exhaustive search on this issue, but this is a lower percentage of ownership for a “controlling stockholder” than I have seen in most cases, though (of course) the analysis is case specific. Additional commentary by Toby Myerson (Paul Weiss).

C.J. Energy Services, Inc. et al v. City of Miami General Employees’ and Sanitation Employees’ Retirement Trust, M&A/Revlon, decided Dec. 19, 2014. The Delaware Court of Chancery held that “there was a ‘plausible’ violation of the board’s Revlon duties because the board did not affirmatively shop the company either before or after signing.” (pg. 3). The Delaware Court of Chancery enjoined the shareholder vote on the transaction at issue for 30-days and “required [the defendant] to shop itself in violation of the merger agreement . . . which prohibited [the defendant] from soliciting other bids.” Id.  In this case, the Delaware Supreme Court reserved, stating that the Court of Chancery did not fulfill the stringent requirements for issuing a mandatory injunction, reminding that there are various ways to satisfy Revlon, and mentioning that this case did not have evidence of “defensive, entrenching motives,” as seen in Revlon and QVC. Note that the 38-page opinion was cranked out in just two days after the case was submitted. The handling of these expedited cases by the Delaware courts is one of the things that make Delaware attractive to corporations. Additional commentary by Brian Quinn (Boston College).

United Technologies Corp. v. Lawrence Treppel, books and records, decided Dec. 23, 2014.  The Delaware Supreme Court reversed the Delaware Court of Chancery’s holding that the Court of Chancery did not have authority to restrict documents produced in a books and records inspection to use only in cases filed in Delaware courts. The Delaware Supreme Court remanded to the Delaware Court of Chancery to decide whether the Court of Chancery will exercise its discretion to so restrict the use of the information obtained in the books and records inspection. In this case, United Technologies insisted that Treppel sign a confidentiality agreement when he sought to inspect books and records, which is fairly common, but the confidentiality agreement also limited the forum, of any claim brought using the information inspected, to Delaware courts. At the time of the inspection request, United Technologies did not have a forum selection clause in its bylaws, but it later adopted one. As the broader forum selection debates continue, it will be interesting to see how the Delaware Court of Chancery handles this case in the books and records context, especially because the Delaware Court of Chancery has been encouraging plaintiffs to use the “tools at hand,” such as books and records requests, before filing derivative lawsuits.  Beyond the substance, one remarkable thing about this decision is that Chief Justice Leo Strine authored an opinion that was only 14 pages. When he was on the Court of Chancery he would author 100+ page opinions with some regularity. Granted, the Court of Chancery is a trial court and their opinions tend to be a good bit longer than the Delaware Supreme Court opinions, regardless of the judge. Additional commentary by Celia Taylor (Denver Law).  

For reading beyond these three cases, former Delaware Supreme Court Justice Jack Jacobs comments on two additional recent Delaware cases here (M&A related). 

January 9, 2015 in Business Associations, Corporate Governance, Corporations, Delaware, Haskell Murray, M&A | Permalink | Comments (3)

Friday, January 2, 2015

Last-Minute AALS Planning

To the extent you will be attending the Association of American Law Schools Annual Meeting in DC, here are a couple of panel recommendations that come with the added benefit of meeting a BLPB blogger in person:

1. Keeping it Current: Animal Law Examples Across the Curriculum (01/03/2015, 5:15-6:30 pm)

Moderator: Katherine M. Hessler, Lewis and Clark
Speaker: Susan J. Hankin, Maryland
Speaker: Joan M. Heminway, Tennessee
Speaker: Courtney G. Lee, McGeorge
Speaker: Kristen A. Stilt, Harvard

2. The Role of Corporate Personality Theory in Regulating Corporations (1/5/2015, 2:00-3:00 pm)

Moderator: Stefan Padfield, Akron
Speaker: Margaret Blair, Vanderbilt
Speaker: Elizabeth Pollman, Loyola
Speaker: Lisa Fairfax, George Washington
Speaker: David Yosifon, Santa Clara

PS--For more information on the day-long program of the AALS Section on Socio-Economics on Monday, Jan. 5, as well as the day-long Annual Meeting of the Society of Socio-Economists on Tuesday, Jan. 6, go here.

January 2, 2015 in Business Associations, Conferences, Corporate Governance, Corporate Personality, Corporations, Joan Heminway, Stefan J. Padfield | Permalink | Comments (0)

Friday, December 19, 2014

Social Subsidiaries

This week I had nice conversations with Brad Edmondson (Author of Ice Cream Social: The Struggle for the Soul of Ben & Jerry’s) and Michael Pirron (CEO of ImpactMakers, a certified benefit corporation).*

Both conversations turned to a topic that has been on my mind recently – that of social businesses that are acquired by large conglomerates that do not seem to have a similar mission.

A few of the parent/sub relationships that spring to mind (or that were discussed) include:

  • Campbell Soup / Plum Organics
  • Coca-Cola / Honest Tea
  • Colgate-Palmolive / Tom’s of Maine
  • Clorox / Burt’s Bees
  • Group Danone / Stonyfield Farm   
  • Unilever / Ben & Jerry’s

I may update this list from time to time, so feel free to suggest additions in the comments. 

At The Guardian, Kyle Westaway argues that Burt Bees worked from within Clorox to make the entire company more sustainable. Similarly, some argue that Unilever has become more sustainable after (and maybe because of) their acquisition of Ben & Jerry’s.

I have heard others argue that social businesses like Burt's Bees and Ben & Jerry’s “sold out,” and that the acquiring large conglomerates tend to cut many socially beneficial initiatives. The conglomerates, these folks argue, are only doing enough for society to keep the customer goodwill and the resulting profits. 

While each acquisition is different, I imagine both sides of the argument can find some support in the facts.

As someone interested in corporate governance, I hope to explore the governance issues involved when a conglomerate owns a social subsidiary in future articles. In Ben & Jerry’s case, I know they put a number of interesting clauses into the acquisition agreement, such as restricting certain action by Unilever regarding employees and local operations (for a period of time) and establishing an independent (and I believe self-perpetuating) board of directors for Ben & Jerry’s.  I am still investigating exactly how much power the Ben & Jerry’s board of directors has, and Unilever did eventually lay off some Ben & Jerry’s employees and close some local plants. In addition, Unilever and Ben & Jerry’s have not always agreed and have taken different, public stances on issues like GMO labeling. But Unilever has become a champion of sustainability among larger companies.  

Personally, I am not sure whether social businesses will tend to have more impact as independent businesses or as social subsidiaries of larger companies – and it may be impossible to generalize – but I will continue to watch future acquisitions and development in this area with interest. 

* My co-bloggers Joan Heminway and Marcia Narine may remember Michael Pirron from a Regent Law symposium they spoke at on social enterprise law. That was a fun conference and it was good to catch up with Micheal and hear how much his company has grown in the past year and a half. 

December 19, 2014 in Business Associations, Corporate Governance, Corporations, CSR, Haskell Murray, Social Enterprise | Permalink | Comments (2)

Monday, December 15, 2014

For Those of You Who Love the Dodge v. Ford Motor Company Case . . .

 . . . here's a relatively new Dodge Challenger commercial (part of a series) that you may find amusing.  I saw it during Saturday Night Live the other night and just had to go find it on YouTube.  It, together with the other commercials in the series, commemorate the Dodge brand's 100-year anniversary.  "They believed in more than the assembly line . . . ."  Indeed!

You also may enjoy (but may already have read) this engaging and useful essay written by Todd Henderson on the case.  The essay provides significant background information about and commentary on the court's opinion.  It is a great example of how an informed observer can use the facts of and underlying a transactional business case to help others better understand the law of the case and see broader connections to transactional business law generally.  Great stuff.

December 15, 2014 in Business Associations, Corporate Finance, Corporate Governance, Corporations, Current Affairs, Entrepreneurship, Joan Heminway | Permalink | Comments (0)

Dirks Reaffirmed and Clarified . . . But Insider Trading Law Remains Murky

On December 10, the press reported the Second Circuit's decision in the insider trading prosecution of Todd Newman and Anthony Chiasson (two of multiple defendants in the original case).  In its opinion, the court reaffirms that tippee liability for insider trading is predicated on a breach of fiduciary duty based on the receipt of a personal benefit by the tipper and clarifies that insider trading liability will not result unless the tippee has knowledge of the facts constituting the breach (i.e., "knew that the insider disclosed confidential information in exchange for a personal benefit").  The court summarized its opinion, which addresses these matters in the context of the Newman case, a criminal case, as follows:

[W]e conclude that, in order to sustain a conviction for insider trading, the Government must prove beyond a reasonable doubt that the tippee knew that an insider disclosed confidential information and that he did so in exchange for a personal benefit. Moreover, we hold that the evidence was insufficient to sustain a guilty verdict against Newman and Chiasson for two reasons. First, the Government’s evidence of any personal benefit received by the alleged insiders was insufficient to establish the tipper liability from which defendants’ purported tippee liability would derive. Second, even assuming that the scant evidence offered on the issue of personal benefit was sufficient, which we conclude it was not, the Government presented no evidence that Newman and Chiasson knew that they were trading on information obtained from insiders in violation of those insiders’ fiduciary duties.

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December 15, 2014 in Business Associations, Corporate Finance, Corporate Governance, Corporations, Current Affairs, Financial Markets, Securities Regulation | Permalink | Comments (0)

Conflicts of Interest on the College Football Playoff Committee

Many people have been talking about the four teams chosen for the inaugural college football playoff. I, good business law blogger that I am, have been thinking about conflicts of interest on the selection committee.

If you’re a football fan, you know that this year, for the first time, the national champion in NCAA major college football will be chosen through a four-team playoff. The four teams selected—Alabama, Oregon, Florida State, and Ohio State—will participate in two semifinal games, with the two winners to play for the championship. (Yes, Art Briles, Baylor should be one of the four, but, no, Ohio State is not the team that shouldn’t be there.)

The four participating schools are chosen by a thirteen-person selection committee, although one of the members, Archie Manning, has taken a leave of absence this year for health reasons. The committee includes several people with current relationships to schools that play major college football, including the following athletic directors:  Jeff Long, Arkansas; Barry Alvarez, Wisconsin; Pat Haden, USC; Oliver Luck, West Virginia; and Dan Radakovich, Clemson.

The selection committee adopted a recusal policy that requires committee members to recuse themselves if the committee member or an immediate family member “(a) is compensated by a school, (b) provides professional services for a school, or (c) is on the coaching staff or administrative staff at a school or is a football student-athlete at a school.” A recused committee member may not participate in any votes involving that team or be present during any deliberations involving that team’s selection or seeding.

Under this policy, all of the athletic directors recused themselves from voting involving their schools. Others connected to particular schools also recused themselves: Condoleeza Rice, because she’s a professor at Stanford; Tom Osborne, because he’s still receiving payments as a former coach and athletic director at Nebraska; Mike Gould because he’s the Superintendent at Air Force.

As it turned out, none of the committee members were recused as to the six schools seriously considered for the final four—the four chosen, plus Baylor and TCU. But should they have been?

Consider Barry Alvarez, the athletic director at Wisconsin, a member of the Big Ten. The Big Ten schools share bowl revenues with other members of the conference. Thus, when Ohio State was chosen for the fourth spot over Baylor and TCU, Wisconsin became entitled to part of the $6 million paid to participants in the semifinal game (and additional money if Ohio State wins the semifinal and plays in the championship game). A vote for Ohio State directly benefitted the Wisconsin athletic department Alvarez heads.

The problem is not unique to Coach Alvarez. Other conferences also share bowl revenue, so Pat Haden (PAC-12), Jeff Long (SEC), and Dan Radakovich (ACC) also benefited when the representatives from their respective conferences were chosen. But those choices, unlike the choice of Ohio State over Baylor or TCU, were relatively uncontroversial. (The choice of Florida State over any of those schools should have been controversial, in my opinion, but it wasn’t.) Oliver Luck (Big 12) also had a financial incentive to vote for either Baylor or TCU, but, unfortunately for him and for his athletic department, neither of them was selected.

This conflict of interest may have been intentional. The committee appointments were carefully apportioned among the Power 5 conferences, and the expectation may have been that each of these athletic directors would vote for representatives of their respective conferences. (We don’t know if they actually did.) But no one is even talking about this clear conflict of interest, not even Art Briles, and that’s a little surprising.

December 15, 2014 in C. Steven Bradford, Corporate Governance, Sports | Permalink | Comments (6)

Friday, December 12, 2014

Challenge to Termination Fee Survives Motion to Dismiss

The Delaware Court of Chancery recently denied a motion to dismiss in In re Comverge, Inc. Shareholders Litigation. In this case, the plaintiff claimed bad faith by the board of directors that approved an allegedly unreasonable termination fee in a merger agreement. Transactional attorneys and professors who teach M&A will want to read this case.  

I am deep into grading my business associations exams, so I will outsource to a nice client alert on the case by Steven Haas at Hunton & Williams. A bit of the alert is below, and you can access the entire alert here.

The court then found that the termination fees of 5.55% of equity value (or 5.2% of enterprise value) during the go-shop period and 7% of equity value (or 6.6% enterprise value) after the go-shop period “test the limits of what this Court has found to be within a reasonable range for termination fees.” The court also analyzed the termination fee in connection with the convertible note held by the buyer in connection with the bridge financing. The plaintiff alleged that the conversion feature in the note, which allowed the buyer to purchase common stock at a price below the merger consideration, would significantly increase the cost to a topping bidder of acquiring the company. Factoring in that cost to the existing termination fee, the plaintiff argued, would result in a total payment equal to 11.6% of the deal’s equity value during the go-shop period and 13.1% of the deal’s equity value after the go-shop period.

The court concluded that, for purposes of surviving a motion to dismiss, it was “reasonably conceivable that the Convertible Notes theoretically could have worked in tandem with the termination fees effectively to prevent a topping bid” from a buyer that might otherwise offer greater value to the company’s stockholders. Perhaps more importantly, the court found that the plaintiff adequately alleged that the board of directors acted in bad faith in approving these terms....

Despite the amount of litigation challenging M&A transactions, there are not many Delaware rulings that have upheld challenges to deal protections such as termination fees, matching rights, and no-shop provisions. This is because the Delaware courts have generally created a body of precedent that provides helpful guidance to buyers and sellers and also recognized the value of such terms. In Comverge, the parties appear to have deviated from this precedent, but more importantly, the court looked to the bridge loan to view the aggregate effect of the various terms on the ability of a third party to make a topping bid. 

December 12, 2014 in Business Associations, Corporate Governance, Delaware, Haskell Murray, M&A | Permalink | Comments (0)

Thursday, December 11, 2014

Reflections of a former supply chain professional turned academic on business and human rights

In many companies, executives and employees alike will give a blank stare if you discuss “human rights.”  They understand the terms “supply chain” and “labor” but don’t always make the leap to the potentially loaded term “human rights.” But business and human rights is all encompassing and leads to a number of uncomfortable questions for firms. When an extractive company wants to get to the coal, the minerals, or the oil, what rights do the indigenous peoples have to their land? If there is a human right to “water” or “food,” do Kellogg’s, Coca Cola, and General Mills have a special duty to protect the environment and safeguard the rights of women, children and human rights defenders? Oxfam’s Behind the Brands Campaign says yes, and provides a scorecard. How should companies operating in dangerous lands provide security for their property and personnel? Are they responsible if the host country’s security forces commit massacres while protecting their corporate property? What actions make companies complicit with state abuses and not merely bystanders? What about the digital domain and state surveillance? What rights should companies protect and how do they balance those with government requests for information?

The disconnect between “business” and “human rights” has been slowly eroding over the past few years, and especially since the 2011 release of the UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights. Businesses, law firms, and financial institutions have started to pay attention in part because of the Principles but also because of NGO pressures to act.  The Principles operationalize a "protect, respect, and remedy" framework, which indicates that: (i) states have a duty to protect against human rights abuses by third parties, including businesses; (ii) businesses have a responsibility to comply with applicable laws and respect human rights; and (iii) victims of human rights abuses should have access to judicial and non-judicial grievance mechanisms from both the state and businesses.

Many think that the states aren’t acting quickly enough in their obligations to create National Action Plans to address their duty to protect human rights, and that in fact businesses are doing most of the legwork (albeit very slowly themselves). The UK, Netherlands, Spain, Italy and Denmark have already started and the US announced its intentions to create its Plan in September 2014.  A number of other states announced that they too will work on National Action Plans at the recent UN Forum on Business and Human Rights that I attended in Geneva in early December. For a great blog post on the event see ICAR director Amol Mehra's Huffington Post piece.

What would a US National Action plan contain? Some believe that it would involve more disclosure regulation similar to the Dodd-Frank Conflict Minerals Rule, the Ending Trafficking in Government Contracting Act, Trafficking Victims Protection Act, the Burma Reporting Requirements on Responsible Investment, and others. Some hope that it will provide additional redress mechanisms after the Supreme Court’s decision in Kiobel significantly limited access to US courts on jurisdictional grounds for foreign human rights litigants suing foreign companies for actions that took place outside of the United States.

But what about the role of business? Here are five observations from my trip to Geneva: 

1)   It's not all about large Western multinationals: As the Chair of the Forum Mo Ibrahim pointed out, it was fantastic to hear from the CEOs of Nestle and Unilever, but the vast majority of people in China, Sudan and Latin American countries with human rights abuses don’t work for large multinationals. John Ruggie, the architect of the Principles reminded the audience that most of the largest companies in the world right now aren’t even from Western nations. These include Saudi Aromco (world’s largest oil company), Foxconn (largest electronics company), and India’s Tata Group (the UK’s largest manufacturing company).

2)   It’s not all about maximization of shareholder value: Unilever CEO Paul Pollman gave an impassioned speech about the need for businesses to do their part to protect human rights. He was followed by the CEO of Nestle.  (The opening session with both speeches as well as others from labor and civil society was approximately two hours long and is here). In separate sessions, representatives from Michelin, Chevron, Heinekin, Statoil, Rio Tinto, Barrick, and dozens of other businesses discussed how they are implementing human rights due diligence and practices into their operations and metrics, often working with the NGOs that in the past have been their largest critics such as Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch and Oxfam. The US Council for International Business, USCIB, also played a prominent role speaking on behalf of US and international business interests.

3)   Investors and lenders are watching: Calvert; the Office of Investment Policy at OPIC, the US government’s development finance institution; the Peruvian Financial Authority; the Supervision Office of the Banco Central do Brasil; the Vice Chair of the Banking Association of Colombia; the European Investment Bank; and Swedfund, among others discussed how and why financial institutions are scrutinizing human rights practices and monitoring them as contractual terms. This has real world impact as development institutions weigh choices about whether to lend to a company in a country that does not allow women to own land, but that will provide other economic opportunities to those women (the lender made the investment). OPIC, which has an 18 billion dollar portfolio in 100 countries, indicated that they see a large trend in impact investing.

4)   Integrated reporting is here to stay: Among other things, Calvert, which manages 14 billion in 40 mutual funds, focused on their commitment to companies with solid track records on environmental, social, and governance factors and discussed the benefits of stand alone or integrated reporting. Lawyers from some of the largest law firms in the world indicated that they are working with their clients to prepare for additional non-financial reporting, in part because of countries like the UK that will mandate more in 2016, and an EU disclosure directive that will affect 6,000 firms.

5)   Is an International Arbitration Tribunal on the way?: A number of prominent lawyers, retired judges and academics from around the world are working on a proposal for an international arbitration tribunal for human rights abuses. Spearheaded by lawyers for better business, this would either supplement or possibly replace in some people’s view a binding treaty on business and human rights. Having served as a compliance officer who dealt extensively with global supply chains, I have doubts as to how many suppliers will willingly contract to appear before an international tribunal when their workers or members of indigenous communities are harmed. I also wonder about the incentives for corporations, the governing law, the consent of third parties, and a host of other sticking points. Some raised valid concerns about whether privatizing remedies takes the pressure off of states to do their part. But it’s a start down an inevitable road as companies operate around the world and want some level of certainty as to their rights and obligations.

On another note, I attended several panels in which business executives, law firm partners, and members of NGOs decried the lack of training on business and human rights in law schools. Even though professors struggle to cover the required content, I see this area as akin to the compliance conversations that are happening now in law schools. There is legal work in this field and there will be more. I look forward to integrating some of this information into an upcoming seminar.

In the meantime, I tried to include some observations that might be of interest to this audience. If you want to learn more about the conference generally you can look to the twitter feed on #bizhumanrights or #unforumwatch, which has great links.  I also recommend the newly released Top 10 Business and Human Rights Issues Whitepaper.

 

 

December 11, 2014 in Business Associations, Conferences, Corporate Finance, Corporate Governance, Corporations, CSR, Current Affairs, Financial Markets, International Business, Jobs, Law School, Marcia Narine, Securities Regulation, Teaching | Permalink | Comments (0)

Monday, December 8, 2014

Splitting Business Associations into Two Courses (3 + 2)

In the comments to my post last week on teaching fiduciary duty in Business Associations, Steve Diamond asked whether I had blogged about why we changed our four-credit-hour Business Associations course at The University of Tennessee College of Law to a three-credit-hour offering.  In response, I suggested I might blog about that this week.  So, here we are . . . .

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December 8, 2014 in Business Associations, Corporate Governance, Corporations, Joan Heminway, Law School, M&A, Securities Regulation, Teaching | Permalink | Comments (10)