Friday, March 7, 2014
Are the directors of Hobby Lobby and Conestoga Wood breaching their fiduciary duties by challenging the contraceptive mandate, seemingly without serious regard to the financial consequences?
Mark Underberg says “perhaps”.
Stephen Bainbridge says “no”.
Professor Bainbridge focuses on the facts that both Hobby Lobby and Conestoga Woods are family-owned, closely-held corporations, and that Conestoga Woods is incorporated under Pennsylvania law, which has a nonshareholder constituency statute. I am not going to jump into their disagreement directly, but, instead, will use a story I saw about Apple to extend the conversation.
Unlike Hobby Lobby and Conestoga Woods, Apple is a publicly-traded, California corporation. California does not have a constituency statute. Recently, Apple CEO and director, Tim Cook, discussed the company’s commitment to the environment, the blind, and making the world a better place. Cook supposedly told investors:
If you want me to do things only for ROI reasons, you should get out of this stock.
More forcefully, Cook said:
When we work on making our devices accessible by the blind, I don’t consider the bloody ROI.
In Cook’s first statement, he seems to be saying that ROI is one of the reasons (just not the only reason) Apple makes decisions. This appears to be a perfectly acceptable statement for a director in the day-to-day decision-making process to make. Could, however, Apple’s board of directors properly completely disregard ROI, as Cook’s second statement suggests?
While Apple is a California corporation, many states take their cues from Delaware on issues of corporate law. Two-former Delaware Chancellors, one of whom is the new Chief Justice of the Delaware Supreme Court, have reiterated the importance of considering shareholder value, at least for directors of Delaware corporations.
In eBay v. Newmark, former-Chancellor William Chandler stated that:
Having chosen a for-profit corporate form, the Craigslist 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.
In a similar vein, Chief Justice Leo Strine has written that:
[A]s a matter of corporate law, the object of the corporation is to produce profits for the stockholders…. the social beliefs of the managers, no more than their own financial interests, cannot be their end in managing the corporation.
(I note that a number of academics think the former-Chancellors' focus on shareholders is misplaced).
How much leeway does corporate law provide directors in focusing on non-shareholder interests? One might convincingly argue that even directors of public, Delaware-corporations are likely to avoid liability if they can make an argument that the decision could (possibly) lead to long-term value for the shareholders. Making such an argument would be relatively easy for Apple – likeminded customers, shareholders, and employees may become more committed to Apple following Apple's society-focused decisions. These likeminded shareholders may buy more shares and sue less frequently. Customers may buy more Apple products and goodwill may increase. Employee turnover may be reduced. All of this may increase profitability in the long-term. While a court is unlikely to challenge such an argument from Apple’s directors, is the argument an honest one? Are Apple's directors really making those decisions with a focus on profitability?
Could Apple’s directors argue, without fear of liability, that they made the society-focused decisions simply because it was the right thing to do, and openly admit that they knew that shareholders were going to suffer in both the short and long-term? I am not sure they could, and I believe that it is that uncertainty in traditional corporate law that benefit corporation statutes attempt to address. (Granted, I admit that the current benefit corporation statutes are far from perfect.)
Update: Professor Bainbridge posted a reply. Thanks to him for the detailed response, and I agree with much of what he writes. To clarify, my point was not about the likelihood of a breach, but rather the possibility of a breach. Also, while I appreciate the protection of the business judgment rule and the Shlensky v. Wrigley case, I think my hypthetical is different than Shelensky. In my hypothetical, the directors openly admit that nonshareholders were the focus of the decision and that shareholders would be hurt in the short and long run. While the court in Shlensky generously provided reasons for why not adding stadium lights might help the Cubs in the long run, I don't remember any direct statements by the defendants about shareholders being purposefully ignored.
Granted, my hypothetical might be a bit far-fetched. Any director with good attorneys may be able to just keep silent or mention the possible long-term benefits of their decisions. That said, in both Dodge v. Ford and eBay v. Newmark, the defendants seemed to insist on telling the court that they were not focused on the shareholders. Some egos may have been involved. I know some professors (such as Professor Gordon Smith) think the rules in those two cases are regulated to closely-held corporations, and while I am not convinced that the general rules are so limited, I do note that the chance of a majority of a public company board openly admiting that shareholder interests were discarded is extremely close to zero.
In the end, I agree with Professor Bainbridge that a breach is highly unlikely, but that Cook "would have been wise to be more temperate in his remarks." Where Professor Bainbridge and I may part company is that I maintain that there is a possibility of a breach if the directors (of a corporation incorporated in a state without a constituency statute) openly admit completely disregarding shareholder interests.
Thursday, March 6, 2014
This week in Lawson v. FMR, LLC the Supreme Court extended the reach of Sarbanes-Oxley to potentially millions more employers when it ruled that SOX's whistleblower protection applies to employees of private employers that contract with publicly-traded companies. In 2002, Congress enacted SOX with whistleblower protection provisions containing civil and criminal penalties. The law clearly protects whistleblowers who work for publicly-held companies, and courts have generally ruled against employees who work for privately-held firms. But the Department of Labor’s Administrative Review Board has ruled that contractors at public companies enjoy whistleblower protection as well. The Supreme Court agreed with that assessment, with Justice Ginsburg writing for the majority. The dissent, written by Justice Sotomayor, noted the "stunning reach" based on the majority's interpretation and opined that the extension was not what Congress intended. The plaintiffs in Lawson did not work for Fidelity, but were contracted to provide advice to Fidelity Mutual Fund customers. Plaintiffs voiced concerns to management regarding problems with cost-accounting methodologies and the alleged improper retention of millions of dollars in fees. Because Fidelity has no employees of its own, it was not a party to the suit.
This development will likely be among the many that the Whistleblower Protection Advisory Committee will discuss at our meeting next week. I sit on a 12-person committee comprised of management, labor and the public for a two-year term, and we are reviewing two dozen laws that OSHA enforces to protect employees. SOX is just one of the financial laws covered by OSHA for whistleblower purposes. Although the comment/question period for the committee meeting is officially closed, those who want to submit comments or questions can still do so through http://www.regulations.gov. The meeting is open to the public on March 11th from 9 a.m. - 5 p.m. in Room N-3437 A-C, U.S. Department of Labor, 200 Constitution Ave., NW, Washington, DC 20210
Some law professors may remember when Justices Roberts and Kennedy opined on the value legal scholarship. Justice Roberts indicated in an interview that law professors spend too much time writing long law review articles about “obscure” topics. Justice Kennedy discussed the value he derives from reading blog posts by professors who write about certs granted and opinions issued. I have no doubt that most law students don’t look at law review articles unless they absolutely have to and I know that when I was a practicing lawyer both as outside counsel and as in house counsel, I almost never relied upon them. If I was dealing with a cutting-edge issue, I looked to bar journals, blog posts and case law unless I had to review legislative history.
As a new academic, I enjoy reading law review articles regularly and I read blog posts all the time. I know that outside counsel read blogs too, in part because now they’re also blogging and because sometimes counsel will email me to ask about a blog post. I encourage my students to follow bloggers and to learn the skill because one day they may need to blog for their own firms or for their employers.
Blogging provides a number of benefits for me. First, I can get ideas out in minutes rather than months via the student-edited law review process. This allows me to get feedback on works/ideas in progress. Second, it forces me to read other people’s scholarship or musings on topics that are outside of my research areas. Third, reading blogs often provides me with current and sophisticated material for my business associations and civil procedure courses. At times I assign posts from bloggers that are debating a hot topic (Hobby Lobby for example). When we discuss the Basic v. Levinson case I can look to the many blog posts discussing the Halliburton case to provide current perspective.
But as I quickly learned, not everyone in the academy is a fan of blogging. Most schools do not count it as scholarship, although some consider it service. Anyone who considers blogging should understand her school’s culture. For me the benefits outweigh the detriment. Like Justice Kennedy, I’m a fan of professors who blog. In no particular order, here are the mostly non-law firm blogs I check somewhat regularly (apologies in advance if I left some out):
http://www.theconglomerate.org/ (thanks again for giving me first opportunity to blog a few months into my academic career!)
http://law.wvu.edu/the_business_of_human_rights (currently on a short hiatus)
I would welcome any suggestions of must-reads.
March 6, 2014 in Business Associations, Corporate Governance, Corporations, Current Affairs, Entrepreneurship, Marcia L. Narine, Merger & Acquisitions, Securities Regulation, Social Enterprise, Teaching, Unincorporated Entities, Weblogs | Permalink | Comments (2)
Monday, March 3, 2014
What happens if short sellers of stock are unable to cover because no one has any shares to sell? That’s one of the many interesting issues in the new book, Harriman vs. Hill: Wall Street’s Great Railroad War, by Larry Haeg (University of Minnesota Press 2013). Haeg details the fight between Edward Henry Harriman, supported by Jacob Schiff of the Kuhn, Loeb firm, and James J. Hill, supported by J.P. Morgan (no biographical detail needed), for control of the Northern Pacific railroad. Harriman controlled the Union Pacific railroad and Hill controlled the Great Northern and Northern Pacific railroads. When Hill and Harriman both became interested in the Burlington Northern system and Burlington Northern refused to deal with Harriman, Harriman raised the stakes a level by pursuing control of Hill’s own Northern Pacific.
I’m embarrassed to admit that I wasn’t aware of either the Northern Pacific affair or the stock market panic it caused. I had heard of the Northern Securities antitrust case that grew out of the affair; I undoubtedly encountered it in my antitrust class in law school. (Everything the late, great antitrust scholar Phil Areeda said in that class is still burned into my brain.)
I’m happy I stumbled across this book, and I think you would enjoy it as well. Harriman vs. Hill has everything needed to interest a Business Law Prof reader: short selling; insider trading; securities fraud; a stock market panic; a hostile takeover; a historical antitrust case; and, of course, J. P. Morgan. This was a hostile takeover before hostile takeovers were cool (and before tender offers even existed, so the fight was pursued solely through market and off-market purchases).
The book does have a couple of shortcomings. One is a polemic at the end of the book against the antitrust prosecution. The antitrust case was clearly a political play by Theodore Roosevelt, and Haeg may be right that the railroads’ actions were economically defensible, but his discussion is a little too one-sided for my taste. Haeg also has a tendency to put thoughts into the characters’ minds (Hill might have been thinking . . .), but he only uses the device to add factual background, so it isn’t terribly offensive. Finally, Haeg occasionally gets the legal terminology wrong. For example, he refers to the railroad holding company “that the U.S. Supreme Court narrowly declared unconstitutional,” when what he means is that the court upheld the law outlawing the holding company. He only makes legal misstatements like that a couple of times, but those errors are very grating on a lawyer reading the book.
Still, in spite of those minor flaws, this is a very good book and I highly recommend it.
Wednesday, February 26, 2014
As previously noted on this blog, 44 law professors filed an amicus brief in Sebelius v. Hobby Lobby Stores, Inc., outlining several corporate law issues in the arts-and-craft store chain’s request for a religious exemption from complying with contraceptive requirements in the Affordable Care Act. That brief prompted several responses and sparked a corporate law debate, which is being recapped and weighed in on at Business Law Prof Blog (see earlier thoughtful posts: here, here, and here by Stefan Padfield and Haskell Murray).
So what is at stake in this case? Religious exemptions for corporations. The role of benefit corporations and other hybrid, triple bottom line entities. The classic entity theory vs. aggregate theory debate of how do we treat the legal fiction of individuals acting through businesses and businesses acting, in part, on behalf of people. The role and future of Corporate Social Responsibility generally. Corporate personhood. Corporate constitutional rights. And existential questions like can corporations pray? You know, easy stuff.
CSR. Our laws set the floor; they establish the minimum that social actors must do and that other members in our society can expect to receive. Corporate social responsibility asks companies to do more than their minimum legal obligations and to do so for a host of reasons, some of which may be religious. The owners of Hobby Lobby can elect a corporate board that will authorize the company to donate to religious charities, to reimburse employees for religious expenses, to provide paid leave for mission trip, or to not operate on Sundays. (Who here hasn’t craved a chicken biscuit on a road trip only to realize that Chick-Fil-A is closed on Sunday? Just us in the south?). Under what I will call the standard state corporate law regime, corporations can take actions like increasing their use of renewable energy sources, implementing diversity programs for women and minorities, refusing to support tobacco products and other actions that are in line with CSR. Whether for religious or environmental or other conscience-driven reasons, a corporation may take these actions and the directors of the corporation (under whose governance the acts took place) are protected by the business judgment rule in the event that any shareholder challenges the program or expenditure as a form of waste or conflict of interest.
Benefit Corporations & Hybrid Entities. For companies incorporated in states with benefit corporate statutes or laws that recognize hybrid entities interested in seeking (but not always maximizing) profits and other goals, there is even greater protection. These entities contain provisions in their charters identifying their “other” purpose, the shareholders are on notice of the dual pursuit and the corporate actions are protected by statutes recognizing this charter-based exception to profit maximization. In the event a shareholder sues for waste or conflicts of interest, not only is the business judgment rule available to protect the corporate actors, but the validity of the corporate action is strengthened by the special legislation. [This in no way captures the full scope of benefit corporation and hybrid entity legislation, but this post is about religious exemptions for corporations, so please excuse the over simplification here.]
Hobby Lobby. The owners of Hobby Lobby are not asking to do more, rather they are asking to do less. Hobby Lobby want to provide less than the standards established in the Affordable Care Act, and less than their competitors will be required to provide. Who would complain if Hobby Lobby failed to comply with the ACA? The employees without access to contraceptive medicine, and the federal government. This isn’t about the business judgment rule and whether owners, acting through boards of directors, can run companies in line with their view of religious or social or environmental consciousness. This case asks can the religious beliefs of owners of a corporation entitle that corporation to do less under the law and as compared to their competitors. On these grounds, deciding against a religious based exemption for Hobby Lobby does no harm to CSR or benefit corporations.
The Hypothetical. If the privately held religious belief of owners can change legal obligations for corporate actors, this could pose a threat to the stability, reliability and uniformity of the floor that the law sets. Poking a hole in the floor for religious exemptions based upon the owners’ religious beliefs may seem like a small concession in the Hobby Lobby case. If religion is a means to opt-out of regulations and requirements, and if doing so could lower costs, shortcut compliance obligations and otherwise provide a competitive edge there will be robust incentives for businesses to claim such an exception in a likely wide array of issues.
The Horrible. The sacred ground of religion has long been an unhappy refuge for arguments in support of racial, gender, religious and sexual-orientation discrimination. Every major social movement that I can think of has met resistance shrouded in religious beliefs. The right for women to vote (and the continuing progress towards equality), desegregating schools, the Civil Rights Acts, and our most modern example: gay rights. Consider the law that the Arizona Legislature passed last week that would exempt businesses refusing to serve same-sex couples from civil liability on the grounds of a religious exemption. Substantially similar legislation is pending in Georgia.
Religion, if we have it, should call us to do more and to be better. As individuals, we may disagree about what “more” and “better” means. I have no doubt that the owners of Hobby Lobby believe that their stance on birth control is consistent with their view of “more” and “better”. As individuals, they can express that value in many ways. As owners of a corporation they can express those values by electing directors that will govern the company and possibly pursue corporate donations to abstinence charities, promote natural family planning among employees via posters in the break room, and other avenues. The individual values of the owners should not be used to excuse the corporation from compliance with the legal standard. Individual religious views should not lower the minimum standards for corporate actions in this context, or others.
Tuesday, February 25, 2014
Yesterday, Carl Icahn sent a letter to eBay shareholders, which starts like this:
Dear Fellow eBay Stockholders,
We have recently accumulated a significant position in eBay’s common stock because we believe there is great long-term value in the business. However, after diligently researching this company we have discovered multiple lapses in corporate governance. These include certain material conflicts of interest, which we believe could put the future of our company in peril. We have found ourselves in many troubling situations over the years, but the complete disregard for accountability at eBay is the most blatant we have ever seen. Indeed, for the first time in our long history, we have encountered a situation where we believe we should not even have to run a proxy fight to change the board composition. Rather, we believe that in any sane business environment these directors would simply resign immediately from the eBay Board, either out of pure decency or sheer embarrassment at the public exposure of the extent of their self-serving activities.
Wow. You could almost drop the mic there. Icahn does not, though. He goes on to outline a series of transactions from board members and the CEO that raise reasonable questions about the independence of certain board members. (click below for more)
Sunday, February 23, 2014
My co-blogger Haskell Murray recently posted “Religion, Corporate Social Responsibility, and Hobby Lobby” and asked me to respond, which I am happy to do. I will admit that I am still developing my thoughts on the issues raised by Haskell’s post, so what follows is a bit jumbled but still gives a sense of why I currently oppose for-profit corporations being permitted to evade regulation by pleading religious freedom (if you have not read Haskell’s post, please do so before proceeding):
1. Corporate power threatens democracy. Corporations and other limited liability entities have been controversial since their creation because, among other things, the combination of limited liability, immortality, asset partitioning, etc., makes them incredible wealth and power accumulation devices. Of course, on the one hand, this is precisely why we have them – so that investors are willing to contribute capital they would never contribute if they risked being personally liable as partners, and thus unique economic growth is spurred, a rising tide then lifts all ships, and so on. On the other hand, because of their unique ability to consolidate power, corporations are aptly considered by many to be one of Madison’s feared factions that threaten to undermine the very democracy that supports their creation and growth:
Besides the danger of a direct mixture of religion and civil government, there is an evil which ought to be guarded against in the indefinite accumulation of property from the capacity of holding it in perpetuity by ecclesiastical corporations. The establishment of the chaplainship in Congress is a palpable violation of equal rights as well as of Constitutional principles. The danger of silent accumulations and encroachments by ecclesiastical bodies has not sufficiently engaged attention in the U.S.
[More after the break.]
February 23, 2014 in Business Associations, Constitutional Law, Corporate Governance, Corporations, Current Affairs, Financial Markets, Food and Drink, Haskell Murray, Religion, Social Enterprise, Stefan J. Padfield | Permalink | Comments (3)
Friday, February 21, 2014
Professor Stephen Bainbridge made me aware of Keith Paul Bishop's post entitled:
I was shocked because the [law professor] brief constitutes a frontal assault on corporate social responsibility. For example, the law professors make the following apocalyptic claim: "If this Court were to agree that, as a matter of federal law, shareholders holding a control bloc of shares in a corporation may essentially transfer their [social responsibility] beliefs to the corporation, the results could be overwhelming." Ok, I substituted “social responsibility” for “religious”. However, if the transfer of stockholder religious beliefs to the corporation would be “overwhelming”, why wouldn’t the same be true of beliefs regarding climate change, the environment, or other beliefs animating the corporate social responsibility movement?
Two of my co-bloggers signed the law professor brief in the Hobby Lobby case that Bishop discusses, so they are probably better suited to respond, but I will provide a few thoughts.
One distinction, between the Hobby Lobby case and CSR, that may be quickly raised is addressed in section II.C of the law professor brief. Hobby Lobby is attempting to use religion to avoid legal obligations. There may be situations where companies argue they should be able to avoid legal obligations because of "beliefs regarding climate change, the environment, or other beliefs animating the corporate social responsibility movement" but none spring immediately to mind.
While the parade of horribles in the second section of the law professor brief might prove compelling, the entire first section (over half of the argument) would be seriously damaged if Hobby Lobby's articles of incorporation were amended to express the religious stance of the company. The first section of the brief focuses on treating the corporation as a separate entity, distinct from its owners. It seems, however, that Hobby Lobby's owners could amend the corporation's articles to endow the corporation with its own, separate and distinct, religious views.
As I have previously mentioned, Hobby Lobby could have helped its chances in this case by converting to some form of for-profit benefit corporation and being specific about its religious views in its articles of incorporation. The Delaware Public Benefit Corporation ("PBC") statute makes the ability to maintain a religious purpose in a PBC explicit when it defines "public benefit" as "a positive effect (or reduction of negative effects) on 1 or more categories of persons, entities, communities or interests (other than stockholders in their capacities as stockholders) including, but not limited to, effects of an artistic, charitable, cultural, economic, educational, environmental, literary, medical, religious, scientific or technological nature." (emphasis added) According to Delaware's PBC law, each PBC must include at least one "specific public benefit" within its statement of purpose.
I am interested in any additional thoughts on this topic, and am eagerly awaiting Professor Bainbridge's promised full response to the law professor brief (and any responses to his response).
Thursday, February 20, 2014
Our BLPB group has had a number of email discussions recently about the use of social media including blogs, Facebook, LinkedIn and Twitter for professional purposes. My home institution has discussed the same topic and even held a “training” session on technology in and outside of the classroom. Because I am a heavy user, I volunteered to blog about how I use social media as a lawyer and academic in the hopes of spurring discussion or at least encouraging others to take a dip in the vast pool of social media.
Although I have been on Facebook for years, I don’t use that professionally at all. I also don’t allow my students to friend me, although I do know a number of professors who do. I often see lawyer friends discussing their clients or cases in a way that borders on violations of the rules of professional conduct, and I made sure to discuss those pitfalls when I was teaching PR last year.
I have also used LinkedIn for several years, mainly for professional purposes to see what others in my profession (at the time compliance and privacy work) were thinking about. I still belong to a number of LinkedIn groups and have found that academics from other countries tend to use LinkedIn more than US professors. I have received a number of invitations to collaborate on research just from posts on LinkedIn. I also encourage all of my law students to join LinkedIn not only for networking purposes, but also so that they can attract recruiters, who now use LinkedIn almost as often as they use headhunters. When I blog, I link my posts to LinkedIn, which in turn automatically posts to Twitter.
I admit that I did not like Twitter at first. I now have three Twitter accounts- follow me at @mlnarine. I started using Twitter when I was a deputy general counsel and compliance officer and I followed law firms and every government agency that was online that regulated my industry. The government agencies were very early to the Twitter game and I once learned about a delay in the rollout of a regulation via Twitter a full week before my outside counsel who was working on the project informed me.
I also use the hashtag system (#) to see what others are saying on topics that hold my interest such as #csr (corporate social responsibility and unfortunately also customer service rep), #socent for social enterprise, #corpgov for corporate governance, and #Dodd-Frank and #climatechange (self explanatory).
I make an effort to tweet daily and am now an expert in trying to say something useful in 140 characters or less (being on yearbook staff in high school and counting characters for headlines made this a breeze for me). I re-tweet other tweets that I believe may be of interest to my followers or links to articles, and often gain new followers based on what I have chosen to tweet, largely because of my use of hashtags. In fact, after a marathon tweeting session following the Dodd-Frank conflict minerals oral argument before the DC Circuit Court of Appeals, I received four calls from the press for interviews, a nice, unexpected benefit of trying to educate my followers. Often when I attend conferences, such as last week’s ABA meeting or the UN’s Business and Human Rights Forum, the organizers develop a hashtag so that those who cannot attend in person can follow the proceedings through tweets and the attachments to those tweets.
The best part of twitter is that I met fellow blogger, Haskell Murray because of one his tweets and that led to an invitation to speak at a conference. Haskell has published a useful list of business law professors on Twitter so if you’re not on his list, let us know and we will update it.
Next week I will post about the benefits or perils of blogging, especially for someone new to academia.
February 20, 2014 in Business Associations, Anne Tucker, Conferences, Corporate Governance, Corporations, Current Affairs, Entrepreneurship, Ethics, Haskell Murray, Marcia L. Narine, Social Enterprise, Stefan J. Padfield, Teaching, Web/Tech | Permalink | Comments (0)
Monday, February 17, 2014
Holly Gregory has a useful post entitled Governance Priorities in 2014 on the Harvard Law School Forum on Corporate Goverance and Financial Regulation. (As a side note, I was surprised to learn that Holly Gregory, who had been a partner at one of my former firms (Weil Gotshal), had left for Sidley Austin. This is a huge loss for Weil as she is widely regarded as one of the country's top corporate governance attorneys).
Go to the link above for the entire post, but the opening few paragraphs are posted below:
As the fallout from the financial crisis recedes and both institutional investors and corporate boards gain experience with expanded corporate governance regulation, the coming year holds some promise of decreased tensions in board-shareholder relations. With governance settling in to a “new normal,” influential shareholders and boards should refocus their attention on the fundamental aspects of their roles as they relate to the creation of long-term value.
Institutional investors and their beneficiaries, and society at large, have a decided interest in the long-term health of the corporation and in the effectiveness of its governing body. Corporate governance is likely to work best in supporting the creation of value when the decision rights and responsibilities of shareholders and boards set out in state corporate law are effectuated.
This article identifies and examines the key areas of focus that institutional investors and boards should prioritize in 2014.
Sunday, February 16, 2014
Tamara Belinfanti recently posted “Shareholder Cultivation and New Governance” on SSRN. Here is the abstract:
Several formal proposals have been made to address shareholder short-termism and speculative behavior. These include the imposition of a financial transaction tax, changes to the U.S. capital gains tax rate, and the adoption of an Investor Stewardship Code in the United Kingdom. This Article reverses the focus from looking to top-down solutions to looking at bottom-up grass root solutions that corporations can employ, and in some cases do already employ to achieve substantially the same effect of rewarding certain types of shareholder behavior while dissuading others — a process I refer to as “Shareholder Cultivation.” While many of the techniques and strategies discussed in this Article are not new and in fact many have been used by companies and investor relation professionals for years, the Article is the first to conceptualize a prescriptive framework for assessing which techniques and strategies should be allowed. Additionally, the Article utilizes new governance theory to examine the concept of Shareholder Cultivation with a fresh lens: as a corporate governance benefit.
Wednesday, February 12, 2014
Last week, I had an enjoyable conversation with Joseph Yockey (Iowa) about his new article: "Does Social Enterprise Law Matter?" I am glad to see more people entering the social enterprise law conversation and have included the abstract of his interesting new article below:
Social enterprise laws are sweeping through the nation. Entrepreneurs can now organize under one of several new legal forms, including the “benefit corporation” form. In theory, these options will make it easier for socially minded firms to pursue a double bottom line of profit and public benefit — that is, to do well while doing good.
This Article tests that theory. In asking whether social enterprise laws matter, I find that the answer is yes, but not for the reasons most people think. The traditional rationale for social enterprise laws is that they free managers from the “duty” to put profits ahead of social objectives. But that’s wrong; existing corporate law is already flexible enough to permit most social/economic tradeoffs. However, by drawing on insights from new governance theories of regulation, I argue that social enterprise laws add value in other ways. Specifically, they provide a catalyst for entrepreneurs, investors, and stakeholders to develop the normative framework necessary to sustain an important new business model and asset class. They do so through their signaling power, as well as through their ability to create a focal point that will facilitate self-regulation, capital formation, and the design of standards necessary to govern this complex sector.
The Article thus offers a new way of thinking about social enterprise laws. Rather than simply provide new off-the-rack legal forms, these laws encourage a multi-disciplinary process of norm creation and private engagement. I conclude by offering firms and lawmakers several strategies to reinforce this underlying dynamic.
Tuesday, February 11, 2014
CVS/Caremark announced, on Feb. 5, 2014, that that the company would cease selling tobacco products in its 7,600 U.S. pharmacies. Given that the entity estimated that it would lose about $2 billion in revenues from the decision, the world took notice. CVS has managed the announcement well, and the company has received generally good press about the whole idea.
Personally, I applaud the decision, both because I think it’s a sensible choice and because I think the board properly exercised its authority to set CVS stores up for long-term success. The company tried to maximize the feel-good story of the decision, but I think that message was tempered by the necessity that CVS explain the profit-seeking role of the decision with the announcement. Clearly, CVS’s counsel read eBay v. Newmark.
The CVS announcement had two components. First, the media spin – for the aren’t-they-great? response:
“We have about 26,000 pharmacists and nurse practitioners helping patients manage chronic problems like high cholesterol, high blood pressure and heart disease, all of which are linked to smoking,” said Larry J. Merlo, chief executive of CVS. “We came to the decision that cigarettes and providing health care just don’t go together in the same setting.”
The decision to exit the tobacco category does not affect the company's 2014 segment operating profit guidance, 2014 EPS guidance, or the company's five-year financial projections provided at its December 18th Analyst Day. The company estimates that it will lose approximately $2 billion in revenues on an annual basis from the tobacco shopper, equating to approximately 17 cents per share. Given the anticipated timing for implementation of this change, the impact to 2014 earnings per share is expected to be in the range of 6 to 9 cents per share. The company has identified incremental opportunities that are expected to offset the profitability impact. This decision more closely aligns the company with its patients, clients and health care providers to improve health outcomes while controlling costs and positions the company for continued growth.
Here’s the thing: CVS shouldn’t have to do this second part, in my view, though I would have advised them to because of the recent language used by the Delaware courts. Unlike some, I still believe in the business judgment rule. Absent conflicts of interest, fraud, or illegality, CVS should be able to make this decision without further justification. The court should abstain. But courts want more.
In eBay v. Newmark, Chancellor Chandler was not satisfied that craigslist was profitable or that the company had achieved market-leading status through its chosen course of operations. He wanted more:
craigslist’s unique business strategy continues to be successful, even if it does run counter to the strategies used by the titans of online commerce. Thus far, no competing site has been able to dislodge craigslist from its perch atop the pile of most-used online classifieds sites in the United States. craigslist’s lead position is made more enigmatic by the fact that it maintains its dominant market position with small-scale physical and human capital. Perhaps the most mysterious thing about craigslist’s continued success is the fact that craigslist does not expend any great effort seeking to maximize its profits or to monitor its competition or its market share.
For Chancellor Chandler, and Delaware courts, it was not sufficient that craigslist’s CEO testified “that craigslist’s community service mission ‘is the basis upon which our business success rests. Without that mission, I don’t think this company has the business success it has. It’s an also-ran. I think it’s a footnote.’” Would it have been sufficient if he had said “our profitability” instead of “business success?” I doubt it.
As such, CVS had to go further to show where this decision fit within their profit-making scenario. Chancellor Strine agrees: “I simply indicate that the corporate law requires directors, as a matter of their duty of loyalty, to pursue a good faith strategy to maximize profits for the stockholders.” Chancellor Strine immediately seeks to soften the blow by stating, “The directors, of course, retain substantial discretion, outside the context of a change of control, to decide how best to achieve that goal and the appropriate time frame for delivering those returns.” The problem: that’s not really true if you add this philosophy together with eBay, which appears to require “great effort” to maximize profits, or monitor competition or market share, as opposed to pursuing a corporate philosophy that creates and maintains profitability and market leadership.
To be clear, this is not about CSR. This is about director primacy and keeping the courts out of the boardroom as much as possible. I think CVS should be able to decide to drop tobacco if they wish, just as craigslist should be able to decide that it wants to stay profitable and be a market leader forever. If long-term success, in the board’s judgment, means not selling cigarettes or not monetizing and not taking risks of a boom and bust, they should be able to do that.
Was it essential that Boston Market and Krispy Kreme expand as fast as possible and as seek as much profit at they could in the near term? I hope not. The directors are supposed to be in charge and make such decisions, not the shareholders, and not the courts. The business judgment rule is an abstention doctrine, and courts should stay out of it unless there is a strong indication of a conflict of interest, fraud, or illegality. CVS took the proper steps to minimize the risk of a court intervention. They just shouldn't have had to justify that decision to anyone but their shareholders at election time.
Friday, February 7, 2014
On April 24, 2014, the University of Saint Thomas (Minnesota) will host a conference on social enterprise. The conference will be interdisciplinary, engaging experts in Catholic studies, entrepreneurship, law, management, and public policy.
The first session will address issues surrounding using business as an agent for social change, with a focus on social entrepreneurship and benefit corporations. The first session will run from 3:00 p.m. to 5:00 p.m. in the Atrium at the University of St. Thomas, School of Law and is approved for 2.0 hours of CLE credit (Minnesota). Speakers are listed below:
- Elizabeth K. Babson, Attorney with Drinker, Biddle and Reath LLP and a co-author of the Benefit Corporation White Paper
- Lyman P. Q. Johnson, LeJeune Distinguished Chair in Law, University of St. Thomas, School of Law, and Robert O. Bentley Professor of Law at Washington and Lee University
- John F. McVea, Associate Professor of Entrepreneurship, University of St. Thomas, Opus College of Business
- J. Haskell Murray, Assistant Professor of Management and Business Law, Belmont University
- Michael J. Naughton, Director, John A. Ryan Institute for Catholic Social Thought, University of St. Thomas, Center for Catholic Studies
- Elizabeth R. Schiltz (moderator), Thomas J. Abood Research Scholar, and Co-Director of the Terrence J. Murphy Institute for Catholic Thought, Law and Public Policy, University of St. Thomas, School of Law
The second session will run from 5:00 p.m. until 8:00 p.m. in the Opus Hall of the Opus College of Business, will include dinner, and the discussion will focus on PoveryCure (a video series by Michael M. Miller of the Acton Institute).
The sponsors from the University of St. Thomas include:
- Center for Catholic Studies
- John A. Ryan Institute for Catholic Social Thought
- Joseph and Edith Habiger Institute for Catholic Leadership
- Opus College of Business
- School of Law
- Schulze School of Entrepreneurship
- Terrence J. Murphy Institute for Catholic Thought, Law and Public Policy
- Veritas Institute
Advanced registration is required, but the conference is free of charge and open to the public. Register here.
Thursday, February 6, 2014
One of my favorite professors/bloggers, Mike Koehler has an interesting post describing how and why the former DOJ FCPA Enforcement Chief criticized the SEC's handling of the FCPA. I used to read Mike's blog daily during my in-house days, and I share his views on the FCPA enforcement regime.
His post is below and reiterates what I wrote about here about the number of enforcement officers who leave office and question the way in which the FCPA is prosecuted:
This post has a similar theme to this prior post. The theme is – all one has to do is wait for former DOJ and SEC FCPA enforcement officials to blast various aspects of the current FCPA enforcement climate. Touching upon the same issues I first highlighted in this August 2012 post titled “The Dilution of FCPA Enforcement Has Reached a New Level With the SEC’s Enforcement Action Against Oracle,” as well as prior posts here, here and here, a former Assistant Chief of the DOJ’s FCPA Unit (William Stuckwisch - currently a partner at Kirkland & Ellis) blasts certain aspects of SEC FCPA enforcement inthis recent article published in Criminal Justice.
The article begins:
“Imagine the following scenario: You have guided your client, a publicly traded company, through the long and winding process that is a Foreign Corrupt Practices Act (FCPA) internal investigation. Afterward, or increasingly more often simultaneously, you then lead your client through presentation of the results of the investigation to the United States Department of Justice (DOJ) and Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) (collectively, “government”). Ultimately, neither the internal investigation nor the government’s investigation finds any improper payment (or offers of payments) to any foreign official, or any other knowing misconduct. As a result, the government cannot pursue substantive FCPA antibribery charges against your client, and the DOJ cannot pursue any other FCPA-related criminal charges. Just when you begin to savor this significant success, you are ripped back to reality, as the SEC informs you that, nevertheless, your client faces civil enforcement under the FCPA’s internal controls provision and demands a significant penalty. Unfortunately, this scenario is not a hypothetical for the FCPA Bar to deliberate at conferences and include as footnotes in memoranda addressing real-world client issues. Instead, it mirrors the facts publicly alleged in the SEC’s August 2012 enforcement action against Oracle Corporation, a case considered by many FCPA practitioners to be a stunning result. [...] In Oracle, the SEC faulted the US parent corporation for not auditing local distributors hired by its Indian subsidiary, without alleging that the distributors (or anyone else) had made any improper payment to any foreign government official. Oracle is the latest example of the SEC’s expansive enforcement of the FCPA’s internal controls provision, and it potentially paints a bleak picture—one in which the provision is essentially enforced as a strict liability statute that means whatever the SEC says it means (after the fact).”
Elsewhere, Stuckwisch, the lead author of the article, notes:
“[G]iven the highly subjective nature of the internal controls provisions, companies will continue to feel at the SEC’s mercy once it opens an FCPA investigation, even if no improper payments (or offers of payments) are ever found.” [...] In our view, the true lesson of Oracle is not that this particular type of internal control is required, but rather that the internal controls provision is so broad, and the statutory standard of reasonable assurances so subjective, that the SEC has an almost unfettered ability to insist on a settlement, including a civil penalty, at the conclusion of virtually any FCPA investigation. Companies may be willing to enter into such settlements—particularly because, in the absence of a parallel DOJ action, they need not make any factual admissions (due to the “neither admit nor deny” nature of SEC settlements in such circumstances), and the cost of a settlement is often lower than continuing investigative and representative costs. But such settlements can have severe, unintended consequences. Perhaps most significantly, these settlements can lead other companies to misdirect their scarce compliance resources.”
Stuckwisch’s final observation is of course spot-on and generally restates the thesis from my 2010 article “The Facade of FCPA Enforcement.“
Sunday, February 2, 2014
Gedicks & Van Tassell on “RFRA Exemptions from the Contraception Mandate: An Unconstitutional Accommodation of Religion"
Frederick Mark Gedicks & Rebecca G. Van Tassell recently posted “RFRA Exemptions from the Contraception Mandate: An Unconstitutional Accommodation of Religion” on SSRN (HT: Robert Esposito). Here is excerpt of the abstract:
Litigation surrounding use of the Religious Freedom Restoration Act to exempt employers from the Affordable Care Act’s “contraception mandate” is moving steadily towards resolution in the U.S. Supreme Court. Both opponents and supporters of the mandate, however, have overlooked the Establishment Clause limits on such exemptions.
The heated religious-liberty rhetoric aimed at the mandate has obscured that RFRA is a “permissive” rather than “mandatory” accommodation of religion — a government concession to religious belief and practice that is not required by the Free Exercise Clause. Permissive accommodations must satisfy Establishment Clause constraints, notably the requirement that the accommodation not impose material burdens on third parties who do not believe or participate in the accommodated practice.
While it is likely that RFRA facially complies with the Establishment Clause, it violates the Clause’s limits on permissive accommodation as applied to the mandate. RFRA exemptions from the mandate would deny the employees of an exempted employer their ACA entitlement to contraceptives without cost-sharing, forcing employees to purchase with their own money contraceptives and related services that would otherwise be available to them at no cost beyond their share of the healthcare insurance premium.
Neither courts nor commentators seem aware that a line of permissive accommodation decisions prohibits shifting of material costs of accommodating anti-contraception beliefs from the employers who hold them to employees who do not. Many of the Court's decisions under the Free Exercise Clause and Title VII also exhibit this concern with cost-shifting accommodations. Yet, one federal appellate court has already mistakenly dismissed this cost-shifting as irrelevant to the permissibility of RFRA exemptions from the mandate.
The impermissibility of cost-shifting under the Establishment Clause is a threshold doctrine whose application is logically prior to all of the RFRA issues on which the courts are now focused: If RFRA exemptions from the mandate violate the Establishment Clause, then that is the end of RFRA exemptions, regardless of whether for-profit corporations are persons exercising religion, the mandate is a substantial burden on employers’ anti- contraception beliefs, or the mandate is not the least restrictive means of protecting a compelling government interest.
Saturday, January 25, 2014
Pearce & Hopkins on “Regulation of L3Cs for Social Entrepreneurship: A Prerequisite to Increased Utilization”
John A. Pearce II & Jamie Patrick Hopkins have posted “Regulation of L3Cs for Social Entrepreneurship: A Prerequisite to Increased Utilization” on SSRN. Here is the abstract:
One new business model is the low-profit, limited liability company (L3C). The L3C was first introduced in Vermont in 2008 and has since been adopted by several other states. The L3C is designed to serve the for-profit and nonprofit needs of social enterprise within one organization. As such, it has been referred to as a "[f]or-profit with [a] nonprofit soul."
In an effort to efficiently introduce the L3C business model, states have designed L3C laws under existing LLC regulations. The flexibility provided by LLC laws allows an L3C to claim a primary social mission and avail itself of unique financing tools such as tranche investing. Specifically, the L3C statutes are devised to attract the program related investments (PRIs) of charitable foundations. Despite these successes, adoption of the L3C form has been slower than proponents expected.
A similar business initiative has found great success in the United Kingdom (U.K.), where numerous proponents supported legislation designed to create hybrid business models that would promote social entrepreneurship. As a result, the U.K. created the Community Interest Company (CIC) in 2006, allowing more than 4,500 companies to register as CICs that offer a double bottom line (or dual benefit) to investors.
While CICs and L3Cs were created with the same double bottom line in mind, CICs face strict government regulations that provide investors with additional protections. These regulations have indirectly contributed to the success of many CICs by increasing investor confidence in the success of these businesses. In the United States, the flexibility of LLC statutes may provide L3Cs with unique funding options, but the lack of government regulation leaves investor outcomes uncertain and inhibits L3Cs from being a better-utilized business model for social entrepreneurship.
Saturday, January 18, 2014
My Akron colleague Will Huhn just posted “2013-2014 Supreme Court Term: Court's Decision in Daimler AG v. Bauman, No. 11-965: Implications for the Birth Control Mandate Cases?” over at his blog wilsonhuhn.com. Here is a brief excerpt, but you should go read the entire post:
On January 14, 2014, the Supreme Court issued its decision in favor of Daimler AG (the maker of Mercedes-Benz), ruling that the federal courts in California lacked personal jurisdiction over Daimler to adjudicate claims for human rights violations arising in Argentina. The ruling of the Court may have implications for the birth control mandate cases pending before the Court in Hobby Lobby Stores and Conestoga Wood Specialties…. In those cases the owners of two private, for-profit business corporations contend that their individual rights to freedom of religion "pass through" to the corporation -- that the corporations are in effect the "agents" of the principal shareholders, and that this is why the corporations have the right to deny their employees health insurance coverage for birth control. In Daimler the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals had held that MBUSA was the "agent" of Daimler AG, and that the substantial business presence of MBUSA in California could be imputed to Daimler AG. The Supreme Court was not persuaded by this agency analysis…. It would be anomalous for the Court to adhere to corporate identity for purposes of personal jurisdiction and liability for tort, and yet to ignore corporate identity to give effect to the personal religious choices of stockholders.
Thursday, January 16, 2014
Living in a Material World- From Naming and Shaming to Knowing and Showing: Will New Disclosure Regimes Finally Drive Corporate Accountability for Human Rights?
In my posts last Thursday (see here and here) and in others, I have explained why I don’t think that the Dodd-Frank conflicts minerals law is the right way to force business to think more carefully about their human rights impacts. I have also blogged about the non-binding UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights, which have influenced both the Dodd-Frank rule, the EU's similar proposal, and the State Department's required disclosures for businesses investing in Burma (see here).
For the past few months, I have been working on an article outlining one potential solution. But I was dismayed, but not surprised to read last week that the US government’s procurement processes may be contributing to the very problems that it seeks to prevent in Bangladesh and other countries with poor human rights records. This adds a wrinkle to my proposal, but my contribution to the debate is below:
Faced with less than optimal voluntary initiatives and in the absence of binding legislation, what mechanisms can interested stakeholders use as leverage to force corporations to take a more proactive role in safeguarding human rights, particularly due diligence issues in the supply chain? Can new disclosure and procurement requirements provide enough incentives to have a measurable impact on the behavior of transnational corporations based in the United States? This Article argues that federal and state governments should take advantage of the fact firms are adapting to more rigorous transparency and due diligence demands from socially responsible investors, international stock exchange listing requirements, and enterprise risk management processes.
Corporations respond to incentives and penalties. Governments can and should require stronger procurement contractual terms for contractors and subcontractors. The contract could require: (1) executive level, Sarbanes-Oxley like attestations regarding human rights policies and due diligence on impacts within the supply chain; (2) an audit by certified third parties and (3) suspension or debarment from contracts as well as clawbacks of executive bonuses and a portion of board compensation as penalties for false or misleading attestations.
Companies that do not choose to participate in government contracting programs will not have to complete the attestation or due diligence process but the benefits of participating will outweigh the costs. The large number of participating firms will likely lead to the practice becoming an industry standard across sectors, thereby forestalling additional legislation, shareholder resolutions, and name and shame campaigns, and thus eventually leading to benefits for all stakeholders including those most directly affected.
January 16, 2014 in Business Associations, Corporate Governance, Corporations, Current Affairs, Ethics, Financial Markets, Marcia L. Narine, Securities Regulation, Social Enterprise | Permalink | Comments (1)
(1) Corporate Disclosures, (2) Indirect Advocacy, (3) Climate Change, and (4) Institutional Investors
The Union of Concerned Scientists, an alliance of more than 400,000 citizens and scientists, released a report today: Tricks of the Trade: How Companies Influence Climate Policy Through Business and Trade Associations. The report is based on data collected by CDP, an international not-for-profit that “works with investors, companies and governments to drive environmental disclosure”. CDP administers an annual climate reporting questionnaire to more than 5,000 companies worldwide with the support of various institutional investors (722 institutional investors with over $87 trillion in capital). The 2013 questionnaire asked companies about climate policy influence, including board membership in trade associations, lobbying, and donations to research organizations.
Tricks of the Trade highlights outsourced political influence through the use of trade associations and interest groups that lobby on behalf of their members rather than the members engaging in these activities in their own name. The report highlights 3 main issues: (1) lack of transparency, (2) incongruence with the outsourced message among responding companies, and (3) the continued role that the Citizens United decision has on corporate spending and political discourse.
Of the 5,557 companies that received the climate change questionnaire (through either CDP’s request or their voluntary participation), 2,323 responded, and only 1,824 (33 percent) of them replied publicly.
Ninety-seven Global 500 companies—the top 500 companies in the world by revenue—including Apple, Amazon, and Facebook, did not participate.
In the Standard & Poor’s (S&P) 500—a market value index of large U.S. companies—166 companies, including Comcast and the Southern Company, did not participate.
The report highlights that proposed rules before the SEC for corporate political spending disclosures would address some transparency concerns and notes that the SEC has no plans to address this issue in 2014. This is no small issue considering the number of institutional investors and amount of invested capital ($87 trillion, with a "T"!!) behind this initiatve. CDP sends its survey to corporations on behalf of the signatory institutional investors who are shareholders.
These shareholder requests for information encourage companies to account for and be transparent about environmental risk. Transparency of this data throughout the global market place ensures the financial community has access to the best available corporate climate change information to help drive investment flows towards a low carbon and more sustainable economy
Ninety-five companies noted that at least one of their trade groups had a climate policy position that was partially or wholly inconsistent with their own, for a total of 172 such responses across all trade groups.
The 2013 questionnaire, while focused on climate change issues, is relevant to broader questions of corporate political influence and spending, the SEC’s agenda for 2014, and the role of corporate disclosures. If you are teaching corporations/BA this semester, this 12 page report raises several issues that, in my opinion, would elicit a great classroom discussion when you get to the role and purpose of corporations, sections on the disclosure regime of our securities markets, and even on shareholder rights to information.