Wednesday, October 11, 2017
Earlier this week, I had the pleasure of hearing a talk about universal proxies from Scott Hirst, Research Director of Harvard’s Program on Institutional Investors.
By way of background, last Fall under the Obama Administration, the SEC proposed a requirement for universal proxies noting:
Today’s proposal recognizes that few shareholders can dedicate the time and resources necessary to attend a company’s meeting in person and that, in the modern marketplace, most voting is done by proxy. This proposal requires a modest change to address this reality. As proposed, each party in a contest still would bear the costs associated with filing its own proxy statement, and with conducting its own independent solicitation. The main difference would be in the form of the proxy card attached to the proxy statement. Subject to certain notice, filing, form, and content requirements, today’s proposal would require each side in a contest for the first time to provide a universal proxy card listing all the candidates up for election.
The Council of Institutional Investors favors their use explaining, “"Universal" proxy cards would let shareowners vote for the nominees they wish to represent them on corporate boards. This is vitally important in proxy contests, when board seats (and in some cases, board control) are at stake. Universal proxy cards would make for a fairer, less cumbersome voting process.”
The U.S. Chamber of Commerce has historically spoken out against them, arguing:
Mandating a universal ballot, also known as a universal proxy card, at all public companies would inevitably increase the frequency and ease of proxy fights. Such a development has no clear benefit to public companies, their shareholders, or other stakeholders. The SEC has historically sought to remain neutral with respect to interactions between public companies and their investors, and has always taken great care not to implement any rule that would favor one side over the other. We do not understand why the SEC would now pursue a policy that would increase the regularity of contested elections or cause greater turnover in the boardroom.
I can't speak for the Chamber, but I imagine one big concern would be whether universal proxies would provide proxy advisors such as ISS and Glass Lewis even more power than they already have with institutional investors. When I asked Hirst about this, he did not believe that the level of influence would rise significantly.
Hirst’s paper provides an empirical study that supports his contention that reform would help mitigate some of the distortions from the current system. It’s worth a read, although he acknowledges that in the current political climate, his proposal will not likely gain much traction. The abstract is below:
Contested director elections are a central feature of the corporate landscape, and underlie shareholder activism. Shareholders vote by unilateral proxies, which prevent them from “mixing and matching” among nominees from either side. The solution is universal proxies. The Securities and Exchange Commission has proposed a universal proxy rule, which has been the subject of heated debate and conflicting claims. This paper provides the first empirical analysis of universal proxies, allowing evaluation of these claims.
The paper’s analysis shows that unilateral proxies can lead to distorted proxy contest outcomes, which disenfranchise shareholders. By removing these distortions, universal proxies would improve corporate suffrage. Empirical analysis shows that distorted proxy contests are a significant problem: 11% of proxy contests at large U.S. corporations between 2001 and 2016 can be expected to have had distorted outcomes. Contrary to the claims of most commentators, removing distortions can most often be expected to favor management nominees, by a significant margin (two-thirds of distorted contests, versus one-third for dissident nominees). A universal proxy rule is therefore unlikely to lead to more proxy contests, or to greater success by special interest groups.
Given that the arguments made against a universal proxy rule are not valid, the SEC should implement proxy regulation. A rule permitting corporations to opt-out of universal proxies would be superior to the SEC’s proposed mandatory rule. If the SEC chooses not to implement a universal proxy regulation, investors could implement universal proxies through private ordering to adopt “nominee consent policies.
Wednesday, September 27, 2017
You couldn't pay me enough to be the owner of an NFL team right now. I almost feel sorry for them. Even if you're not a fan, by now you've heard about the controversy surrounding NFL free agent Colin Kaepernick, and his decision to kneel during the national anthem last year. You've also probably heard about the President's call for NFL owners to fire players who don't stand while the anthem is played and his prediction of the league's demise if the protests continue. Surprisingly, last Sunday and Monday, some of the same owners who made a business decision to take a pass on Kaepernick despite his quarterback stats (citing among other things, the potential reactions of their fans) have now themselves made it a point to show solidarity with their players during the anthem. The owners are locking arms with players, some of whom are now protesting for the first time.
Football is big business, earning $13 billion last year, and the owners are sophisticated businessmen with franchises that are worth on average $2.5 billion dollars each. They care about their fans of course, and I'm sure that they monitor the various boycotts. They are also reading about lawmakers calling for funding cuts for teams that boycott. But they also care about their sponsors. Fortunately for the NFL (and for the players who have lucrative deals), most sponsors that have made statements have walked a fine line between supporting both the flag and free speech. The question is, how long will all of this solidarity last? There is no clear correlation between the rating shifts and the protests but as soon as there is definitive proof or sponsors start to pull out, I predict the owners will do a difficult cost-benefit analysis. Most teams aren't like the Green Bay Packers, which has no "owner," but instead has over 100,000 shareholders. Most teams don't have boards of directors or shareholders to answer to. Most of these owners used their own money or have very few business partners.
The NFL teams owners' decision to maintain support of the players will likely be more difficult than those of the many CEOs who have expressed their disagreement with the President over race-related matters by quitting his advisory boards (see my previous post ). Those CEOs could point to their own corporate codes of conduct or social responsibility statements. Those CEOs considered the reputational ramifications with their employees and their consumers, and the choice was relatively straightforward, especially because there was a more unified public outrage. The NFL owners, on the other hand, have highly skilled "employees" from a finite pool of talent who have been called SOBs by the President but who are also being booed by the fans, their consumers. The owners can't be fired, and it's very difficult to remove them. Should the owners stick with the players (some of whom are brand new to the protest scene) or should they wait to see the latest polls about what fans think about the leadership of America's favorite sport? Should they fire players, as they probably could under their contracts? The big test may come during a planned boycott by veterans during Veteran's Day Weekend. Perhaps I will be proven wrong, and maybe boycotts will have an effect on what the NFL owners and players do, but I predict the players and owners will want to get back to the business of playing football sooner rather than later. I'll keep monitoring the situation this Sunday and for the rest of the season.
Wednesday, September 20, 2017
What keeps general counsels and compliance officers up at night? Here's what boards should be discussing
No one had a National Compliance Officer Day when I was in the job, but now it’s an official thing courtesy of SAI Global, a compliance consulting company. The mission of this one-year old holiday is to:
- Raise awareness about the importance of ethics and compliance in business and shine a spotlight on the people responsible for making it a reality.
- Provide resources to promote the wellness and well-being of ethics and compliance professionals so they can learn how to overcome stress and burnout.
- Grow the existing ethics and compliance community and help identify and guide the next generation of E&C advocates.
Although some may look at this skeptically as a marketing ploy, I’m all for this made-up holiday given what compliance officers have to deal with today.
Last Saturday, I spoke at the Business Law Professor Blog Conference at the University of Tennessee about corporate governance, compliance, and social responsibility in the Trump/Pence era. During my presentation, I described the ideal audit committee meeting for a company that takes enterprise risk management seriously. My board agenda included: the impact of climate change and how voluntary and mandatory disclosures could change under the current EPA and SEC leadership; compliance budgetary changes; the rise of the whistleblower; the future of the DOJ’s Yates Memo and corporate cooperation after a recent statement by the Deputy Attorney General; SEC and DOJ enforcement priorities; data protection and cybersecurity; corporate culture and the risk of Google/Uber- type lawsuits; and sustainability initiatives and international governance disclosures. I will have a short essay in the forthcoming Transactions: The Tennessee Journal of Business Law but here are a few statistics that drove me to develop my model (and admittedly ambitious) agenda:
- According to an ACC survey of over 1,000 chief legal officers:
- 74% say ethics and compliance issues keep them up at night
- 77% handled at least one internal or external compliance-related investigation in their department
- 33% made policy changes in their organizations as a result of geopolitical events.
- 28% were targeted by regulators in the past two years
- Board members polled in September 2016 were most concerned about the following compliance issues:
- Regulatory changes and scrutiny may heighten
- Cyber threats
- Privacy/identity and information security risks
- Failure of corporate culture to encourage timely identification/escalation of significant risk issues
- During the 2017 proxy season, shareholders submitted 827 proposals (down from 916 in 2016):
- 112 related to proxy access,
- 87 related to political contributions and lobbying,
- 35 focused on board diversity (up from 28 in 2016),
- 34 proposals focused on discrimination or diversity-related issues (up from 16 in 2016),
- 69 proposals related to climate change (3 of those passed, including at ExxonMobil)
- 19 proposals focused on the gender pay gap (up from 13 in 2016)
General counsels are increasingly taking on more of a risk officer role in their companies, and compliance officers are in the thick of all of these issues. The government has also recently begun to hold compliance officers liable for complicity with company misdeeds. My advice- if it’s not against your company/school policy, take SCCE’s suggestion and hug your compliance officer. I’m sure she’ll appreciate it.
Wednesday, August 16, 2017
Business leaders probably didn’t think the honeymoon would be over so fast. A CEO as President, a deregulation czar, billionaires in the cabinet- what could possibly go wrong?
When Ken Frazier, CEO of Merck, resigned from one of the President’s business advisory councils because he didn’t believe that President Trump had responded appropriately to the tragic events in Charlottesville, I really didn’t think it would have much of an impact. I had originally planned to blog about How (Not) To Teach a Class on Startups, and I will next week (unless there is other breaking news). But yesterday, I decided to blog about Frazier, and to connect his actions to a talk I gave to UM law students at orientation last week about how CEOs talk about corporate responsibility but it doesn’t always make a difference. I started drafting this post questioning how many people would actually run to their doctors asking to switch their medications to or from Merck products because of Frazier’s stance on Charlottesville. Then I thought perhaps, Frazier’s stance would have a bigger impact on the millennial employees who will make up almost 50% of the employee base in the next few years. Maybe he would get a standing ovation at the next shareholder meeting. Maybe he would get some recognition other than an angry tweet from the President and lots of news coverage.
By yesterday afternoon, Under Armour’s CEO had also stepped down from the President’s business advisory council. That made my draft post a little more interesting. Would those customers care more or less about the CEO's position? By this morning, still more CEOs chose to leave the council after President Trump’s lengthy and surprising press conference yesterday. By that time, the media and politicians of all stripes had excoriated the President. This afternoon, the President disbanded his two advisory councils after a call organized by the CEO of Blackstone with his peers to discuss whether to proceed. Although Trump “disbanded” the councils, they had already decided to dissolve earlier in the day.
I’m not teaching Business Associations this semester, but this is a teachable moment, and not just for Con Law professors. What are the corporate governance implications? Should the CEOs have stayed on these advisory councils so that they could advise this CEO President on much needed tax, health care, immigration, infrastructure, trade, investment, and other reform or do Trump’s personal and political views make that impossible? Many of the CEOs who originally stayed on the councils believed that they could do more for the country and their shareholders by working with the President. Did the CEOs who originally resigned do the right thing for their conscience but the wrong thing by their shareholders? Did those who stayed send the wrong message to their employees in light of the Google diversity controversy? Did they think about the temperament of their board members or of the shareholder proposals that they had received in the past or that they were expecting when thinking about whether to stay or go?
Many professors avoid politics in business classes, and that’s understandable because there are enough issues with coverage and these are sensitive issues. But if you do plan to address them, please comment below or send an email to firstname.lastname@example.org.
August 16, 2017 in Business Associations, Corporate Governance, Corporate Personality, Corporations, CSR, Current Affairs, Ethics, Law School, Marcia Narine Weldon, Shareholders, Teaching | Permalink | Comments (1)
Wednesday, July 12, 2017
Prior to joining academia, I served as a compliance officer, deputy GC, and chief privacy officer for a Fortune 500 company. I had to learn everything on the job by attending webinars and conferences and reading client alerts. Back then, I would have paid a law school graduate a competitive salary to work in my compliance group, but I couldn’t find anyone who had any idea about what the field entailed.
The world has changed. Now many schools (including mine) offer relevant coursework for this JD-advantage position. I just finished teaching a summer skills course in compliance and corporate social responsibility, and I’m hoping that I have encouraged at least a few of the students to consider it as a viable career path. Compliance is one of the fastest growing corporate positions in the country, and the number of compliance personnel has doubled in the past 6 years. Still, many business-minded law students don’t consider it in the same vein as they consider jobs with Big Law.
This summer, my twelve students met twice a week for two hours at 7:30 pm. In the compressed six-week course, they did the following:
- Heard from compliance officers and outside counsel for public companies and government entities
- Read the same kinds of primary source material that compliance officers and counsel read in practice (such as the Federal Sentencing Guidelines, the Yates Memo, deferred prosecution agreements, and materials from the EU on the upcoming changes to data protection regulation)
- Compared and contrasted CSR reports from WalMart and Target, and reviewed the standards for the Global Reporting Initiative and the UN Global Compact
- Advocated before a board as a worker safety NGO for a company doing business in Bangladesh
- Served as a board member during a meeting (using actual board profiles)
- Wrote a reflection paper on the ideal role and reporting structure of compliance officers
- Considered top employment law and data protection risks for fictional companies to which they were assigned
- Looked at the 10-Ks and CDP report for climate change disclosures after examining the role of socially responsible investors and shareholder resolutions
- Drafted industry-specific risk assessment questionnaires
- Drafted three code of conduct policies
- Wrote a short memo to the GC on health care compliance and the DOJ Yates memo
- Did a role play during a crisis management simulation acting as either a board member, SEC or DOJ lawyer, the CEO, compliance officer or GC and
- Conducted a 20-minute board presentation or employee compliance training (worth the biggest part of the grade).
Perhaps the most gratifying part of the semester came during tonight’s final presentations. The students could pick any topic relevant to the fictional company that they were assigned. They chose to discuss child labor in the supply chain for a clothing company, off-label marketing in the pharmaceutical industry, anti-money laundering compliance in a large bank, and environmental and employment law issues for a consumer product conglomerate. Even though I was not their BA professor, I was thrilled to hear them talk about the Caremark duty, the duty of care, and the business judgment rule in their presentations. Most important, the students have left with a portfolio of marketable skills and real-world knowledge in a fast growing field.
If you have your own ideas on how to teach compliance and CSR, please leave them below or email me at email@example.com.
Friday, July 7, 2017
Bernard Sharfman has written another interesting article on shareholder empowerment. I wish I had read A Private Ordering Defense of a Company's Right to Use Dual Class Share Structures in IPOs before I discussed the Snap IPO last semester in business associations.
The abstract is below:
The shareholder empowerment movement (movement) has renewed its effort to eliminate, restrict or at the very least discourage the use of dual class share structures in initial public offerings (IPOs). This renewed effort was triggered by the recent Snap Inc. IPO that utilized non-voting stock. Such advocacy, if successful, would not be trivial, as many of our most valuable and dynamic companies, including Alphabet (Google) and Facebook, have gone public by offering shares with unequal voting rights.
This Article utilizes Zohar Goshen and Richard Squire’s “principal-cost theory” to argue that the use of the dual class share structure in IPOs is a value enhancing result of the bargaining that takes place in the private ordering of corporate governance arrangements, making the movement’s renewed advocacy unwarranted.
As he has concluded:
It is important to understand that while excellent arguments can be made that the private ordering of dual class share structures must incorporate certain provisions, such as sunset provisions, it is an overreach for academics and shareholder activists to dictate to sophisticated capital market participants, the ones who actually take the financial risk of investing in IPOs, including those with dual class share structures, how to structure corporate governance arrangements. Obviously, all the sophisticated players in the capital markets who participate in an IPO with dual class shares can read the latest academic articles on dual class share structures, including the excellent new article by Lucian Bebchuk and Kobi Kastiel, and incorporate that information in the bargaining process without being dictated to by parties who are not involved in the process. If, as a result of this bargaining, the dual class share structure has no sunset provision and perhaps even no voting rights in the shares offered, then we must conclude that these terms were what the parties required in order to get the deal done, with the risks of the structure being well understood.… capital markets paternalism is not required when it comes to IPOs with dual class share structures.
Please be sure to share your comments with Bernard below.
Wednesday, June 21, 2017
Yesterday, during a conversation with a law student about whether corporate social responsibility is a mere marketing ploy to fool consumers, the student described her conflict with using Uber. She didn’t like what she had read in the news about Uber’s workplace culture issues, sex harassment allegations, legal battles with its drivers, and leadership vacuum. The student, who is studying for the bar, probably didn’t even know that the company had even more PR nightmares just over the past ten days--- the termination of twenty employees after a harassment investigation; the departure of a number of executives including the CEO’s right hand man; the CEO’s “indefinite” leave of absence to “mourn his mother” following a scathing investigative report by former Attorney General Eric Holder; and the resignation of a board member who made a sexist remark during a board meeting (ironically) about sexism at Uber. She clearly hadn’t read Ann Lipton’s excellent post on Uber on June 17th.
Around 1:00 am EST, the company announced that the CEO had resigned after five of the largest investors in the $70 billion company issued a memo entitled “Moving Uber Forward.” The memo was not available as of the time of this writing. According to the New York Times:
The investors included one of Uber’s biggest shareholders, the venture capital firm Benchmark, which has one of its partners, Bill Gurley, on Uber’s board. The investors made their demand for Mr. Kalanick to step down in a letter delivered to the chief executive while he was in Chicago, said the people with knowledge of the situation.
… the investors wrote to Mr. Kalanick that he must immediately leave and that the company needed a change in leadership. Mr. Kalanick, 40, consulted with at least one Uber board member, and after long discussions with some of the investors, he agreed to step down. He will remain on Uber’s board of directors.
This has shades of the American Apparel controversy with ousted CEO Dov Charney that I have blogged about in the past. Charney also perpetuated a "bro culture" that seemed unseemly for a CEO, but isn't all that uncommon among young founders. The main difference here is that the investors, not the Board, made the decision to fire the CEO. As Ann noted in her post this weekend, there is a lot to unpack here. I’m not teaching Business Associations in the Fall, but I hope that many of you will find a way to use this as a case study on corporate governance, particularly Kalanick’s continuation as a board member. That could be awkward, to put it mildly. I plan to discuss it in my Corporate Compliance and Social Responsibility course later today. As I have told the students and written in the past, I am skeptical of consumers and their ability to change corporate culture. Sometimes, as in the case of Uber, it comes down to the investors holding the power of the purse.
Thursday, June 8, 2017
ICYMI: Eric Chaffee's "The Origins of Corporate Social Responsibility" Makes SSRN Top Downloads For Corporate Governance Network List
The paper can be downloaded here: https://papers.ssrn.com/sol3/Papers.cfm?abstract_id=2957820
A portion of the abstract:
[T]his Essay and my other works introduce a new theory of the firm, collaboration theory. This theory views the corporation as a collaborative effort among a state government and those individuals organizing, operating, and owning the business entity to pursue economic development and economic gain. This theory is superior to the prevailing essentialist theories of the corporation because it explains both how and why the corporation exists.
Under this theory, corporations are obligated to seek profit based on the deal struck among the state and individuals owning, operating, and organizing the corporation, but the co-adventurers in the corporation are obligated to treat each other in good faith whenever possible. This means corporations should only engage in socially irresponsible ways in which the financial benefit to the corporation is clear. Because of the uncertainty of life, this is only going to be the rarest of circumstances. In these rare circumstances, to control bad behavior on the part of the corporation, the government must engage in affirmative lawmaking and regulation to alter the cost–benefit analysis to force corporations to be ethical.
Wednesday, June 7, 2017
In 2016, a number of news outlets focused on Wal-Mart’s reputation crisis and outdated management style. Many, including union leaders, doubted the sincerity behind the company’s motivation in raising wages last year. I’ve blogged about Wal-Mart before, but today, there appears to be a different story to tell. Wal-Mart, the bogeyman of many NGOs and workers’ rights groups, actually believes that “serving the customers and society is the same thing… [and] putting the customer first means delivering for them in ways that protect and preserve the communities they live in and the world they will pass on to future generations.” This comes from the company’s 148-page 2016 Global Responsibility Report. Target’s report is a paltry 43 pages in comparison.
What accounts for the difference? Both use the Global Reporting Initiative framework, which aims to standardize sustainability reporting using materiality factors and items in the 10-K. Key GRI disclosures include: a CEO statement; key impacts, risks, and opportunities; markets; collective bargaining agreements; supply chain description; organizational changes; internal and external CSR standards (such as conflict mineral policy, LEED etc); membership associations; governance structure; high-level accountability for sustainability; consultation between stakeholders and the board; board composition; board knowledge of sustainability; board pay; helplines or hotlines for reporting unethical or unlawful behavior; climate change risks; energy consumption; GhG emissions; employee benefits; health and safety; performance appraisal process; human rights assessments; wage and hour audits; supplier diversity; community engagement; PAC contributions by party; and more.
Whew! Companies can of course glean a lot of this information from their proxy, 10-K and other disclosures, but it still takes the average company months to complete. It may not even be worth it. Although 82% of consumers say they want to buy from a socially-responsible company, only 17% have actually read a CSR report, according to one study. To be honest, I’m surprised the number of CSR report readers is that high. My informal survey during Monday's class revealed that one student out of the 12 had read a CSR report, and this is in a group that chose to take a two-hour course in compliance and CSR that meets at 7:30 pm in the summer.
Here’s what I learned about Wal-Mart by reading the first four pages its report (it cleverly has big colorful picture blocks of statistics). I knew from press reports that Wal-Mart is currently facing numerous employment law class actions and may soon pay $300 million to the DOJ settle its bribery scandal. But the CSR report made Wal-Mart look like the model corporate citizen. The company earned 482 billion in revenue, employs 2.3 million employees, operates in 28 countries, and had 260 million weekly customer visits in 2016. It has invested 2.7 billion over 2 years in wages and benefits for its employees. It will train 1 million female farmers and factory workers around the world. It has eliminated 35.6 million metric tons of greenhouse gas emissions from its supply chain. Target, which has settled for 18.5 million with several states over data breaches, took a different approach for its report. Its first few pages has pictures and charts too but focuses on what it has achieved/exceeded and what it hasn’t based on its own 20 goals. The Target 2015 report is a decidedly more humble looking document than the Wal-Mart product (the next Target report is due this year).
I tend to believe that these CSR reports are designed for the consumption of regulators and lawmakers- hence the longer and more robust Wal-Mart report. Although Target claims in its report that CSR can enhance its reputation, the average Wal-Mart and Target consumer will not stop to read the report and many who boycott these stores will not likely change their minds be reading these reports. Instead, they may view them as an expensive marketing tool. Although Target doesn't face the same level of legal problems or reputational issues as Wal-Mart, it has still lost market share to Wal-Mart and Amazon, proving my theory that no matter what consumers say about shopping ethically, they really focus on convenience, quality, and price.
I look forward to hearing what my students think at tonight’s class. I fear I may already traumatize them with the videos they will see about Nike, fair trade, and whether boycotting sweatshops make sense.
Wednesday, May 24, 2017
On June 8, I will answer this and other questions during an interactive session for a group of social entrepreneurs at Venture Cafe in Miami. Fortunately, I will have an accountant with me to talk through some of the tax issues. I was invited by the director of Radical Partners, a social impact accelerator. We estimate that 75% of the audience members will work for a nonprofit and the rest will work in traditional for profit entities with a social mission.
Many entrepreneurs in South Florida have an interest in benefit corporations, but don't really know much about them. Our job is to provide some guidance on entity selection and demystify these relatively new entities. Some of the issues I plan to address in my 20 minutes are:
1) the differences between nonprofits, for profits, and benefit corporations
2) the differences between benefit and social purpose corporations (focusing on Florida law)
3) the biggest myths about benefit corporations (such as perceived tax benefits)
4) tax issues (for the accountant)
5) director duties
6) funding- changing funding model from donors to investors; going public
7) reporting, auditing, and certification requirements
8) benefit enforcement proceedings
9) the role of B Lab and the difference between a B Corp and a benefit corporation (currently 15 Florida companies are certified through B Lab)
10) transparency and accountability issues
We plan to leave about 45 minutes for questions. Not many lawyers in Florida have experience with benefit or social purpose corporations, so I am seeking guidance from our readers. If you are a practitioner and have dealt with these entities in your states, I'm interested in your thoughts. Are a lot of your clients asking about these entities? Have they converted? How do you help them decide whether this change is good for them? I'm also fortunate to have colleagues on this blog who are real thought leaders in the area, and am looking forward to their comments. Personally, I believe that for many business owners, benefit corporations may provide a perceived marketing edge, but not much more, Author Tina Ho has raised concerns about greenwashing. If I'm wrong, let me know below or send me an email at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Tuesday, May 23, 2017
Last weekend, retired NFL receiver Calvin Johnson made news when he revealed that he was not pleased with the Detroit Lions and how they handled his retirement. Johnson is apparently frustrated that the Lions required him to pay back about 10% of the unearned $3.2 million remaining on his $16 million signing bonus from his 2012 contract. This is apparently a thing for the Lions, who sought all of the unearned signing bonus money remaining on Barry Sanders' contract when he abruptly retired in 1999.
This is in contrast to Tony Romo's retirement, in which the Dallas Cowboys released him, making the $5 million remaining on the signing bonus Romo's. Cowboys owner Jerry Jones said he was following the “Do Right Rule” when he allowed the team to release him. The Seattle Seahawks made a similar decision with Marshawn Lynch.
Some have argued that Johnson is being "pettier" than the Lions in this spat. Mike Florio, a sports writer and graduate of WVU College of Law, where I teach, argued that "while Johnson has every right to be miffed at the Lions, Johnson also should be miffed at himself. Or at whoever advised him to retire instead of biding his time until the Lions would have released him." Florio correctly notes that Johnson had a big cap number likely to come due had he not retired or accepted a restructured deal, so he was coming from a position of power in negotiating, which would have likely forced the Lions to cut him. Still, that doesn't mean Johnson is wrong to be frustrated.
Perhaps Johnson didn't ever want to be cut in his career, even at that point in his carerr. Maybe he just wanted to retire. The Lions were worried, perhaps about "precedent" that other players could use to walk away without paying back the bonus, though there is already such precedent out there, as discussed above, and the Lions have non-binding precedent already in the Barry Sanders case, where an arbitrator said Sanders had to pay back some of his signing bonus. Beyond that, the response to most players would simply be, "I know we didn't ask Calvin Johnson for any money back. You're not Calvin Johnson."
It is true that the Lions could seek money from Johnson, and that Johnson almost certainly, from a legal sense, owed the money. But having a legal right to something doesn't always mean it is a good idea. And that is important for lawyers to remember. The question I would have asked the Lions front office is this: "Is it really worth $320,000 when it is possible that one of your greatest players will feel disrespected by the process? Especially when you already created a rift with one of you other greatest players fifteen years ago?"
Maybe it was asked, and the answer was yes, but I just don't see the upside. My guess is that the Lions asked for a lot more and the two sides negotiated to this figure. But that process, not the payment, is likely what irked Johnson. Why does it matter? Because it tells future people the team wants, especially coaches and free agents, how the Lions do business. And when choosing between two similar offers, that could very well lead one to choose the other team.
I often use these kinds of issues facing a business when teaching the importance of the business judgment rule and allowing a board of directors not to pursue claims it can win (as long as there is no fraud or self dealing). Sometimes, it is better for the entity to let a claim go than to extend a bad story or scare off potential talent. Back in 2007, for example, Billy Donovan was hired to leave his head coaching job at the University of Florida to lead the NBA's Orlando Magic. Just days later, Donovan decided he did not want to leave Florida, and asked the Magic to let him return to the college game. The Magic decided to let him do so without any financial penalty, though they did ask him to agree not to coach in the NBA for five years.
Why let Donovan back out and return to Florida without a payment? For one, the Magic needed to hire a new coach, and you want to send a message that you are a good employer. Second, Donovan was beloved in Florida. He had won two NCAA championships in a key market for the team. Don't irritate your prime audience is always a good bit of advice. There was little upside to being difficult. The team was almost certainly irritated, but there is little value in letting that lead to bad publicity and unnecessary public spats. This principle extends well beyond the sports realm, but it is especially important in any area where employers fight for talent, which is common in the sports and entertainment areas.
In assessing the legal (and business) options for the Calvin Johnson situation, good lawyering requires a recognition that key issues were likely related to perception and respect, not money. As such, the fact that there was an argument about repayment at all was the issue that made Johnson frustrated (and now could have repercussions in the future free agent market). It is certainly possible the Lions assessed this risk and decided it was worth it. I disagree that it was worth it, but that would be a reasonable decision. (As a life-long Lions fan, I will need more evidence the problem was properly assessed, though I do hold out hope for the new front office.)
Such decisions, if made simply on the legal merits (e.g., Would I win in court?), run the risk of what Jeff Lipshaw calls "pure lawyering," which is essentially legal reasoning without context or assessment of non-legal impacts or opportunities. As Lipshaw explains in the preface to his book, Beyond Legal Reasoning, A Critique of Pure Lawyering:
Legal reasoning is merely one way of creating meaning out of circumstances in the real world. In its pure form, it does nothing more than convert a real-world narrative to a set of legal conclusions that have no necessary connection either to truth or morality.
Or the ability to recruit free agents.
Wednesday, May 17, 2017
I try to watch at least one Ted Talk a day. I learn new substantive topics and I also learn from listening to the speakers break down complex topics in an engaging way--a key skill for the classroom. I don’t know that any of the videos in a recent article written for business people really transformed my thinking about business, but I did find some parts interesting and inspiring.
Here they are for your viewing pleasure:
- Myths of Entrepreneurship
- Why Work Doesn't Happen at Work
- 10 Things to Know Before You Pitch to a Venture Capitalist
- What Consumers Want
- What Makes us Feel Good about Our Work
- The Power of Time Off
- Build a Tower, Build a Team
Tuesday, March 21, 2017
I write often about how courts often incorrectly treat LLCs as corporations. Last week, I reported on a case about a court that misstated, in my view, the state of the law regarding LLCs and veil piercing. When I do so, I often get comments about how veil piercing should go away. Prof. Bainbridge replies similarly here.
I am on record as being open to the elimination of veil piercing (I am actually, at least in theory, working on an article tentatively called Abolishing Veil Piercing Without Abolishing Equity), and I am especially open to the idea of abolishing veil piercing with regard to contract-based claims. (Texas largely does this by requiring "actual fraud" for cases arising out of contract. For a great explanation of Texas law on the subject, please see Elizabeth Miller's detailed description here.)
Several courts over the years, most notably the Wyoming court in Flahive, have extended the concept of veil piercing to LLCs, even where a statute did not explicitly provide the concept of veil piercing. Although I think these courts got it wrong, now that concept of veil piercing is well established for corporations and LLCs in virtually all (if not all) U.S. jurisdictions, I think any rollback must properly be done by statute.
In the past, I have been critical of courts like the one in Flahive, because I agree with Prof. Bainbridge and others who argue that veil piercing, when not expressly stated, may well have not been intended. Minnesota, for example, has at least made the concept clear. Minnesota LLC law provides:
322B.303 PERSONAL LIABILITY OF MEMBERS AS MEMBERS.
Subdivision 1. Limited liability rule.
Subject to subdivision 2, a member, governor, manager, or other agent of a limited liability company is not, merely on account of this status, personally liable for the acts, debts, liabilities, or obligations of the limited liability company.
Subd. 2. Piercing the veil.
The case law that states the conditions and circumstances under which the corporate veil of a corporation may be pierced under Minnesota law also applies to limited liability companies. . . . .
Like most states, Minnesota courts are willing to pierce the corporate veil where (1) an entity ignores corporate formalities and serves as the alter ego of a shareholder and (2) enforcing the liability limitations of the corporate form leads to injustice or is fundamentally unfair. I have often used this example of how a state should, if they want to have LLC veil piercing, proceed. That is, although I would not advocate for doing so, if a state is going to have veil piercing of LLCs, it should be expressly stated. The statute may be flawed in concept, but that's a call for the legislature.
The Minnesota statute is well crafted to achieve its apparent goals, in that it makes clear that one can, in fact, be "personally liable for the acts, debts, liabilities, or obligations of the limited liability company" merely on account of being a member of an LLC. That is, the general rule is that members are not liable for the LLC's debts, but where an LLC veil is pierced, all members become personally liable for the debts, regardless of the their actions. In Minnesota, this includes "corporate formalities" as a factor for corporate veil piercing and thus it applies to LLCs, even though LLCs have few, if any, statutory formalities (and many states disclaim formalities as an obligation to maintain limited liability for an LLC).
This seems wrong to me, especially the part about making those who did not participate in the bad behavior potentially liable and adding a corporate-formalities requirement to an entity that is not supposed to have them. As Prof. Bainbridge argues in Abolishing Veil Piercing, "Abolishing veil piercing would refocus judicial analysis on the appropriate question-did the defendant-shareholder do anything for which he or she should be held directly liable." I agree.
Still, because veil-piercing of entities is well-settled law, I don't think judges have latitude to eliminate it. Judges must focus on proper limitations and clarity of the law that is still subject to interpretation (or plainly inconsistent with the law), where possible. At this point, abolishing veil piercing must be done by statute. Maybe some bold legislators will heed the call.
Thursday, February 2, 2017
Donald Trump has had a busy two weeks. Even before his first official day on the job, then President-elect Trump assembled an economic advisory board. On Monday, January 23rd, President Trump held the first of his quarterly meetings with a number of CEOs to discuss economic policy. On January 27th, the President issued what some colloquially call a “Muslim ban” via Executive Order, and within days, people took to the streets in protest both here and abroad.
These protests employed the use of hashtag activism, which draws awareness to social causes via Twitter and other social media avenues. The first “campaign,” labeled #deleteuber, shamed the company because people believed (1) that the ride-sharing app took advantage of a work stoppage by protesting drivers at JFK airport, and (2) because they believed the CEO had not adequately condemned the Executive Order. Uber competitor Lyft responded via Twitter and through an email to users that it would donate $1 million to the ACLU over four years to “defend our Constitution.” Uber, which is battling its drivers in courts around the country, then established a $3 million fund for drivers affected by the Executive Order. An estimated 200,000 users also deleted their Uber accounts because of the social media campaign, and the CEO resigned today from the economic advisory board.
Other CEOs, feeling the pressure, have also issued statements against the Order. In response, some companies such as Starbucks, which pledged to hire 10,000 refugees, have faced a boycott from many Trump supporters, which in turn may lead to a “buycott” from Trump opponents and actually generate more sales. This leads to the logical question of whether these political statements are good or bad for business, and whether it's better to just stay silent unless the company has faced a social media campaign. Professor Bainbridge recently blogged about the issue, observing:
The bulk of Lyft's business is conducted in large coastal cities. In other words, Obama/Clinton country. By engaging in blatant virtue signaling, which it had to know would generate untold millions of dollars worth of free coverage when social media and the news picked the story up, Lyft is very cheaply buying "advertising" that will effectively appeal to its big city/blue state user base.
Bainbridge also asks whether “Uber's user base is more evenly distributed across red and blue states than Lyft? And, if so, will Uber take that into account?” This question resonates with me because some have argued on social media (with no evidentiary support) that Trump supporters don’t go to Starbucks anyway, and thus their boycott would fail.
All of this boycott/boycott/CEO activism over the past week has surprised me. I have posted in the past about consumer boycotts and hashtag activism/slacktivism because I am skeptical about consumers’ ability to change corporate behavior quickly or meaningfully. The rapid response from the CEOs over the past week, however, has not changed my mind about the ultimate effect of most boycotts. Financial donations to activist groups and statements condemning the President’s actions provide great publicity, but how do these companies treat their own employees and community stakeholders? Will we see shareholder proposals that ask these firms to do more in the labor and human rights field and if so, will the companies oppose them? Most important, would the failure to act or speak have actually led to any financial losses, even if they are not material? Although 200,000 Uber users deleted their accounts, would they have remained Lyft customers forever if Uber had not changed its stance? Or would they, as I suspect, eventually patronize whichever service provided more convenience and better pricing?
We may never know about the consumers, but I will be on the lookout for any statements from shareholder groups either via social media or in shareholder proposals about the use or misuse of corporate funds for these political causes.
Thursday, January 19, 2017
Bernard Sharfman, a prolific author on corporate governance, has written his fourth article on the business judgment rule. The piece provides a thought-provoking look at a subject that all business law professors teach. He also received feedback from Myron Steele, former Chief Justice of the Delaware Supreme Court, and William Chandler III, former Chancellor of the Delaware Court of Chancery during the drafting process. I don’t think I will assign the article to my students, but I may take some of the insight when I get to this critical topic this semester. Sharfman has stated that he aims to change the way professors teach the BJR.
The abstract is below:
Anyone who has had the opportunity to teach corporate law understands how difficult it is to provide a compelling explanation of why the business judgment rule (Rule) is so important. To provide a better explanation of why this is so, this Article takes the approach that the Aronson formulation of the Rule is not the proper starting place. Instead, this Article begins by starting with a close read of two cases that initiated the application of the Rule under Delaware law, the Chancery and Supreme Court opinions in Bodell v. General Gas & Elec. By taking this approach, the following insights into the Rule were discovered that may not have been so readily apparent if the starting point was Aronson.
First, without the Rule, the raw power of equity could conceivably require all challenged Board decisions to undergo an entire fairness review. The Rule is the tool used by a court to restrain itself from implementing such a review. This is the most important function of the Rule. Second, as a result of equity needing to be restrained, there is no room in the Rule formulation for fairness; fairness and fiduciary duties must be mutually exclusive. Third, there are three policy drivers that underlie the use of the Rule. Protecting the Board’s statutory authority to run the company without the fear of its members being held liable for honest mistakes of judgment; respect for the private ordering of corporate governance arrangements which almost always grants extensive authority to the Board to make decisions on behalf of the corporation; and the recognition by the courts that they are not business experts, making deference to Board authority a necessity. Fourth, the Rule is an abstention doctrine not just in terms of precluding duty of care claims, but also by requiring the courts to abstain from an entire fairness review if there is no evidence of a breach in fiduciary duties or taint surrounding a Board decision. Fifth, stockholder wealth maximization (SWM) is the legal obligation of the Board and the Rule serves to support that purpose. The requirement of SWM enters into corporate law through a Board’s fiduciary duties as applied under the Rule, not statutory law. In essence, SWM is an equitable concept.
Tuesday, January 3, 2017
Today is my annual check-up on the use of "limited liability corporation" in place of the correct “limited liability company.” I did a similar review last year about this time, and revisiting the same search led to remarkable consistency. This is disappointing in that I am hoping for improvement, but at least it is not getting notably worse.
Since January 1, 2016, Westlaw reports the following using the phrase "limited liability corporation":
- Cases: 363 (last year was 381)
- Trial Court Orders: 99 (last year was 93)
- Administrative Decisions & Guidance: 172 (last year was 169)
- Secondary Sources: 1116 (last year was 1071)
- Proposed & Enacted Legislation: 148 (last year was 169)
As was the case last year, I am most distressed by the legislative uses of the phrase, because codifying the use of "limited liability corporation" makes this situation far murkier than a court making the mistake in a particular application.
New York, for example, passed the following legislation:
Section 1. Subject to the provisions of this act, the commissioner of parks and recreation of the city of New York is hereby authorized to enter into an agreement with the Kids' Powerhouse Discovery Center Limited Liability Corporation for the maintenance and operation of a children's program known as the Bronx Children's Museum on the second floor of building J, as such building is presently constructed and situated, in Mill Pond Park in the borough of the Bronx. The terms of the agreement may allow the placement of signs identifying the museum.
NY LEGIS 168 (2016), 2016 Sess. Law News of N.Y. Ch. 168 (S. 5859-B) (McKINNEY'S).
This creates a bit of a problem, as Kids' Powerhouse Discovery Center Limited Liability Corporation does not exist. The official name of the entity is as Kids' Powerhouse Discovery Center LLC and it is, according to state records, an LLC (not a corporation). Does this mean the LLC will have to re-form as a corporation so that the commissioner of parks and recreation has authority to act? It would seem so. On the one hand, it could be deemed an oversight, but New York law, like other states, makes clear that an LLC and a corporation are distinct entities.
Several other states enacted legislation using “limited liability corporation” in contexts that clearly intended to mean LLCs. Hawaii, West Virginia (sigh), Minnesota, Alabama, California, and Rhode Island were also culprits.
There was one bit of federal legislation, too. The “Communities Helping Invest through Property and Improvements Needed for Veterans Act of 2016” or the “CHIP IN for Vets Act of 2016." PL 114-294, December 16, 2016, 130 Stat. 1504. This act authorizes the Secretary of Veterans Affairs to carry out a pilot program in which donations of certain property (real and facility construction) donated by the following entities:
(A) A State or local authority.
(B) An organization that is described in section 501(c)(3) of the Internal Revenue Code of 1986 and is exempt from taxation under section 501(a) of such Code.
(C) A limited liability corporation.
(D) A private entity.
(E) A donor or donor group.
(F) Any other non-Federal Government entity.
I have to admit, it is not at all clear to me why one needs any version of (C) if one has (D) as an option. Nonetheless, to the extent it was not intended to be redundant of (D), part (C) would appear to be incorrect.
I addition, I'd be remiss not to note the increase to 1116 uses in secondary sources last year, though only 43 were in law reviews and journals. That part is, at least a little, encouraging.
Last year, I wished “everyone a happy and healthy New Year that is entirely free of LLCs being called ‘limited liability corporations.’” This year, I have learned to temper my expectations. I still wish everyone a happy and healthy New Year, but as to the use of “limited liability corporations” I am hoping to reduce the uses by half in all settings for 2017, and I hope at least three legislatures will fix errors in their existing statutes. That seems more reasonable, if not any more likely.
Wednesday, December 14, 2016
UC Irvine law professor, David Min, has a new article titled, Corporate Political Activity and Non-Shareholder Agency Costs, in theYale Journal on Regulation. Professor Min examines corporate constitutional law in recent examples such as Citizens United, through the lens of nonshareholder dissenters.
The courts have never considered the problem of dissenting nonshareholders in assessing regulatory restrictions on corporate political activity. This Article argues that they should. It is the first to explore the potential agency costs that corporate political activity creates for nonshareholders, and in so doing, it lays out two main arguments. First, these agency costs may be significant, as I illustrate through several case studies. Second, neither corporate law nor private ordering provides solutions to this agency problem. Indeed, because the theoretical arguments for shareholder primacy in corporate law are largely inapplicable for corporate political activity, corporate law may actually serve to exacerbate the agency problems that such activity creates for non-shareholders. Private ordering, which could take the form of contractual covenants restricting corporate political activity, also seems unlikely to solve this problem, due to the large economic frictions facing such covenants. These findings have potentially significant ramifications for the Court’s corporate political speech jurisprudence, particularly as laid out in Bellotti and Citizens United. One logical conclusion is that these decisions, regardless of their constitutional merit, make for very bad public policy, insofar as they preempt much-needed regulatory solutions for reducing non-shareholder agency costs, and thus may have the effect of inhibiting efficient corporate ordering and capital formation. Another outgrowth of this analysis is that nonshareholder agency costs may provide an important rationale for government regulation of corporate political activity.
In examining corporate political activity, Professor Min, expertly blends and connects agency theory to corporate theories of the firm. He rebuts traditional arguments against nonshareholder constituents such as residual interest holders (shareholders), the role of private ordering and provides 3 detailed case studies illustrating the costs of CPA on nonshareholder constituents. Among the proposals and options explored to mitigate these agency costs, Professor Min suggests that the existence of agency costs to nonshareholders--an area heretofore unexamined in corporate law--could justify a regulatory intervention.
Thursday, December 8, 2016
A friend of mine is considering teaching his constitutional law seminar based almost entirely on current and future decisions by the President-elect. I would love to take that class. I thought of that when I saw this article about Mr. Trump’s creative use of Delaware LLCs for real estate and aircraft. Here in South Florida, we have a number of very wealthy residents, and my Business Associations students could value from learning about this real-life entity selection/jurisdictional exercise. Alas, I probably can’t squeeze a whole course out of his business interests. However, I am sure that using some examples from the headlines related to Trump and many of his appointees for key regulatory agencies will help bring some of the material to life.
Sunday, October 23, 2016
The Association of American Law Schools (AALS) Annual Meeting will be held Tuesday, January 3 – Saturday, January 7, 2017, in San Francisco. Readers of this blog who may be interested in programs associated with the AALS Section on Socio-Economics & the Society of Socio-Economics should click on the following link for the complete relevant schedule:
Specifically, I'd like to highlight the following programs:
On Wednesday, Jan. 4:
9:50 - 10:50 AM Concurrent Sessions:
- The Future of Corporate Governance:
How Do We Get From Here to Where We Need to Go?
andre cummings (Indiana Tech) Steven Ramirez (Loyola - Chicago)
Lynne Dallas (San Diego) - Co-Moderator Janis Sarra (British Columbia)
Kent Greenfield (Boston College) Faith Stevelman (New York)
Daniel Greenwood (Hofstra) Kellye Testy (Dean, Washington)
Kristin Johnson (Seton Hall) Cheryl Wade (St. John’s ) Co-Moderator
Lyman Johnson (Washington and Lee)
- Socio-Economics and Whistle-Blowers
William Black (Missouri - KC) Benjamin Edwards (Barry)
June Carbone (Minnesota) - Moderator Marcia Narine (St. Thomas)
1:45 - 2:45 PM Concurrent Sessions:
1. What is a Corporation?
Robert Ashford (Syracuse) Moderator Stefan Padfield (Akron)
Tamara Belinfanti (New York) Sabeel Rahman (Brooklyn)
Daniel Greenwood (Hofstra)
On Thursday, Jan. 5:
3:30 - 5:15 pm:
Section Programs for New Law Teachers
Principles of Socio-Economics
in Teaching, Scholarship, and Service
Robert Ashford (Syracuse) Lynne Dallas (San Diego)
William Black (Missouri - Kansas City) Michael Malloy (McGeorge)
June Carbone (Minnesota) Stefan Padfield (Akron)
On Saturday, Jan. 7:
10:30 am - 12:15 pm:
Economics, Poverty, and Inclusive Capitalism
Robert Ashford (Syracuse) Stefan Padfield (Akron)
Paul Davidson (Founding Editor Delos Putz (San Francisco)
Journal of Post-Keynesian Economics) Edward Rubin (Vanderbilt)
Richard Hattwick (Founding Editor,
Journal of Socio-Economics)
October 23, 2016 in Business Associations, Conferences, Corporate Governance, Corporate Personality, Corporations, Current Affairs, Financial Markets, Law and Economics, Law School, Marcia Narine Weldon, Research/Scholarhip, Stefan J. Padfield, Teaching | Permalink | Comments (0)
Wednesday, September 14, 2016
Last spring, in the wake of Justice Scalia's passing, I blogged about Justice Scalia's final business law case: Americold Realty Trust v. ConAgra Ltd. The oral argument signaled that the Court's preference for a formalistic, bright line test that asked whether the entity involved was an unincorporated entity, in which case the citizenship of its members controlled the question of diversity, or whether it was formed as an corporation, in which a different test would apply. The Supreme Court issued its unanimous (8-0) opinion in March, 2016 holding that the citizenship of an unincorporated entity depends on the citizenship of all of its members. Because Americold was organized as a real estate investment trust under Maryland law, its shareholders are its members and determine (in this case, preclude) diversity jurisdiction.
S.I. Strong, the Manley O. Hudson Professor of Law at the University of Missouri, has a forthcoming article, Congress and Commercial Trusts: Dealing with Diversity Jurisdiction Post-Americold, forthcoming in Florida Law Review. The article addresses the corporate constitutional jurisprudential questions of how can and should the Supreme Court treat business entities. What is the appropriate role of substance and form in business law? Her article offers a decisive reply:
Commercial trusts are one of the United States’ most important types of business organizations, holding trillions of dollars of assets and operating nationally and internationally as a “mirror image” of the corporation. However, commercial trusts remain underappreciated and undertheorized in comparison to corporations, often as a result of the mistaken perception that commercial trusts are analogous to traditional intergenerational trusts or that corporations reflect the primary or paradigmatic form of business association.
The treatment of commercial trusts reached its nadir in early 2016, when the U.S. Supreme Court held in Americold Realty Trust v. ConAgra Foods, Inc. that the citizenship of a commercial trust should be equated with that of its shareholder-beneficiaries for purposes of diversity jurisdiction. Unfortunately, the sheer number of shareholder-beneficiaries in most commercial trusts (often amounting to hundreds if not thousands of individuals) typically precludes the parties’ ability to establish complete diversity and thus eliminates the possibility of federal jurisdiction over most commercial trust disputes. As a result, virtually all commercial trust disputes will now be heard in state court, despite their complexity, their impact on matters of national public policy and their effect on the domestic and global economies.
Americold will also result in differential treatment of commercial trusts and corporations for purposes of federal jurisdiction, even though courts and commentators have long recognized the functional equivalence of the two types of business associations. Furthermore, as this research shows, there is no theoretical justification for this type of unequal treatment.
This Article therefore suggests, as a normative proposition, that Congress override Americold and provide commercial trusts with access to federal courts in a manner similar to that enjoyed by corporations. This recommendation is the result of a rigorous interdisciplinary analysis of both the jurisprudential and practical problems created by Americold as a matter of trust law, procedural law and the law of incorporated and unincorporated business associations. The Article identifies two possible Congressional responses to Americold, one involving reliance on minimal diversity, as in cases falling under 28 U.S.C. §§1332(d) and 1369, and the other involving a statutory definition of the citizenship of commercial trusts similar to that used for corporations under 28 U.S.C. §1332(c). In so doing, this Article hopes to place commercial trusts and corporations on an equal footing and avoid the numerous negative externalities generated by the Supreme Court’s decision in Americold.
A special thanks to Professor Strong who read the blog's coverage of Americold and shared her scholarship with me.