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.
Monday, June 27, 2016
I am still at Berle VIII with Haskell Murray and Anne Tucker. One more day of my June Scholarship and Teaching Tour to go--and I have a final presentation to do. Then, back to Knoxville to stay until late in July. Whew!
As you may recall or know, my Berle appearance this week follows closely on the heels of a talk on the same work (on corporate purpose and litigation risk in publicly held U.S. benefit corporations) that I made at last week's 2016 National Business Law Scholars conference. While I am thinking about this conference, please join me in saving the date for the next one: the 2017 National Business Law Scholars conference. Next year's conference will be held June 8-9 at The University of Utah S. J. Quinney College of Law, with Jeff Schwartz hosting. I will post more information and the call for papers, etc. once I have it.
June 27, 2016 in Anne Tucker, Business Associations, Conferences, Corporate Finance, Corporate Governance, Corporate Personality, Corporations, CSR, Haskell Murray, Joan Heminway, Research/Scholarhip, Teaching | Permalink | Comments (0)
Wednesday, June 22, 2016
Today is the rare day where I feel like a professor. Dressed in jeans and drinking coffee in my office, I have been reading Colin Mayer's book Firm Commitment in advance of the Berle VIII Symposium in Seattle next week (you can also see Haskell's post & Joan's post about Berle). That's not a typo, my agenda for the day is reading. And not for a paper or to prep for class, I am just reading a book--cover to cover. I can hardly contain my joy at this.
I have been struck by the elegantly simple idea that corporations' true benefit is to advance (and therefore) balance commitment and control. I have long viewed the corporate binary as between accountability and control. Under my framework the two are necessary to balance and contribute to the checks and balances within the corporate power puzzle of making the managers, who control the corporation, accountable to the shareholders. Colin Mayer posits that the one directional accountability of the corporation to shareholders without reciprocity of commitment from the shareholders to the corporation is a corrosive element in corporate design.
"The most significant source of failure is the therefore that we have created a system of shareholder value driven companies who detrimental effects regulation is supposed to but fails to correct, and in response we week greater regulation as the only instrument that we believe can address the problem. We are therefore entering a cycle of the pursuit of ever-narrower shareholder interests moderated by steadily more intrusive but ineffective regulation."
In developing the notions of commitment and control, I have found the following passages particularly thought-provoking:
"The financial structure of the corporation is of critical importance...The commitment of owners derives from the capital that is employed in the corporation. What is held within it is fundamentally different from what remains outside as the private property of its owners. What is distributed to owners as dividends is no longer available as protection against adverse financial conditions and what is provided in the form of debt from banks and bondholders as against equity form shareholders is secure only as long as the corporation has the means with which to service it."
"While incentives and control are centre stage in conventional economics, commitment is not. Enhancing choice, competition, and liquidity is the economist's prescription for improving social welfare, and legal contracts, competition policy and regulation are their basic toolkit for achieving it. Eliminate restrictions on consumers' freedom to choose, firms' ability to compete, and financial markets' provision of liquidity and we can all move closer to economic nirvana. Of course, economics recognizes the problems of time inconsistency in us doing today what yesterday we promised we would not conceive of doing today; of reputations in us continuing to do today what we promised to do yesterday for fear of not being able to do it tomorrow, and of capital and collateral in making it expensive for us to deviate from what we said yesterday we would do today and tomorrow. But these are anomalies. Economics does not recognize the fundamental role of commitment in all aspects of our commercial as well as our social lives and the way in which institutions contribute to the creation and preservation of commitment. It does not appreciate the full manner in which choice, competition and liquidity undermine commitment or the fact that institutions are not simply mechanisms for reducing costs of transaction, but on the contrary means to establish and enhance commitment at the expense of choice, competition, and liquidity. Commitment is the subject of soft sentimental sociologists, not of realistic rational economists. The sociologists' are the words of Shakespeare's 'Love all, trust few. Do wrong to none', the economists' those of Lenin: 'Trust is good, control is better.'"
Wednesday, May 18, 2016
Today, I received notice of a web seminar on corporate political activity to be hosted by one of my former firms, King & Spalding.
Interested readers can register for the free web seminar here.
More information, from the notice I received, is reproduced below.
Election 2016: What Every Corporate Counsel Must Know About Corporate Political Activity
Thursday, May 26, 2016, 12:30 PM – 1:30 PM ET
In this election year, corporations and their employees will be faced with historic opportunities to engage in the political arena. Deciding whether and how to do so, however, must be made carefully and based on a thorough understanding of the relevant law. In this presentation, King & Spalding experts will address this timely and important area of the law and provide the guidance that corporate counsel need when engaging in the political process.
California is the back on my short list for the state's inability to successfully differentiate between corporations and limited liability companies (LLCs). Last week, an "unpublished/noncitable" decision that was published on Westlaw provided a good example.
The opinion states:
A corporation—including a limited liability corporation—may be served by effecting service on its agent for service of process. (Code Civ. Proc., § 416.10, subd. (a); see also Corp.Code, § 17701.16, subd. (a) [allowing service on limited liability corporations under Code Civ. Proc., § 413.10 et seq.].)7
*12 One of the ways a limited liability corporation can be served is by substituted service. (1 Weil & Brown, Cal. Practice Guide: Civil Procedure Before Trial (The Rutter Group 2015) ¶ 4:172, p. 4–26.) This requires that a copy of the summons and complaint be left at the office of the person to be served (or, in some cases, at the mailing address of the person to be served), in the presence of a person who is apparently in charge, “and by thereafter mailing a copy of the summons and complaint by first-class mail, postage prepaid to the person to be served at the place where a copy of the summons and complaint were left.” (Code Civ. Proc., § 415.20, subd. (a).)
No, no, no. First, even in California, an LLC is a "limited liability company." It says so right in the act. Cal. Corp. Code § 17701.01 (West) ("This title may be cited as the California Revised Uniform Limited Liability Company Act.").
And, yet, I have to admit, if you note the cite to the LLC act, California lawmakers have made this less clear than in other states. Yes, that's right. In California, the LLC Act is part of the California Corporations Code. Cal. Corp. Code §§ 17701.16 - 17713.13 (West). For that matter, so are partnerships, under Title 2. Sigh.
Would it be so terrible if the Corporations Code were called what it is: the Business Entities Code? As currently structured, LLCs and partnerships are arguably types of corporations under California law, as the above cases suggests. One could argue the headings don't change the meaning or intent of the laws. See Cal. Corp. Code § 6 (West) ("Title, division, part, chapter, article, and section headings contained herein do not in any manner affect the scope, meaning, or intent of the provisions of this code."). The problem with that is that the code text says otherwise: "This act shall be known as the Corporations Code." Cal. Corp. Code § 1 (West).
To reinforce that notion, the Code Commission notes from the 2014 main volume explain:
This code was listed in the appendices of Code Commission reports showing code classification as the “Corporations, Partnerships, and Associations Code.” The 14 syllables of that title appear to make it impractical, but no shorter phrase indicative of the full subject-scope has been found. Therefore, resort has been had to the rhetorical device of synecdoche, and the entire code designated by the name of longest part.
I admit I had to look up synecdoche to be sure I was on the right track, but the term supports, I think, my point that California is treating LLCs and partnerships as corporations (or some subset thereof). See, for example, this explanation:
Synecdoche is a literary device in which a part of something represents the whole or it may use a whole to represent a part.
Synecdoche may also use larger groups to refer to smaller groups or vice versa. It may also call a thing by the name of the material it is made of or it may refer to a thing in a container or packing by the name of that container or packing.
Still, even if it were accurate to says LLCs and partnerships are "types" of corporations under the California code, one thing is still clear: an LLC is a limited liability company, which is, at a minimum, a specific type of "limited liability corporation."
I suppose I can see how "14 syllables" might be deemed "impractical," but not at the cost of imprecision. The "Business Entities" -- or even just "Entities" or "Associations" -- Code would seem like a better, more accurate, option.
Oh well. At least the court cited the part of the California code for service of an LLC. That much, they got right.
Tuesday, March 1, 2016
It's super Tuesday and in the spirit of this big primary day, let's look at corporate spending in the election.
First, let's talk about someone who isn't in the race anymore, Jeb Bush. Ciara Torres-Spelliscy, law professor at Stetson University College of Law, and Brennan Center Fellow, wrote piece highlighting the role of corporate money in Jeb Bush's Super Pac. Corporate money was big business for Jeb. Torres-Spelliscy discusses a $10 million donation from CV Starr with former AIG CEO Maruice Raymond "Hank" Greenberg at the helm, several private company donations over $1M and a multi-million dollar donation from publicly traded, NextEra Energy Inc (NYSE ticker: NEE). Torres-Spelliscy writes "If anyone ever tries to sell you the bill of goods that corporations are not taking advantage of their Citizens United rights to spend in American politics, remember this: the top donor to Jeb! Bush’s Super PAC was a corporation." Read her full account here.
The failure of Jeb Bush's well-moneyed campaign has generated debate about the "real impact" of money in politics if it can't produce a certain result. Rick Hasen, election law professor at University of California Irvine and prolific writer behind the Election Law Blog, presented at Georgia State University College of Law on Monday promoting his new book (Plutocrats United). Rick used a very persuasive analogy to depict the role of money in the United States' current election climate. He posited that money cannot buy election results, but if an election can be thought of as a raffle or a lottery, it buys certain donors more tickets than most people. The more raffle tickets one holds, and here the big money donors are getting suitcases full of tickets, the greater the chance, the higher the odds, of winning the election lottery.
If you want to see who the ticket holders are and who they are supporting, here are a few resources that help readers delve into the specific question of how many tickets are corporations holding. For an overview of money-raised by candidate, the New York Times distills recent FEC disclosures into a digestible table available here. Open Secrets, which compiles and discloses election spending has a useful tool to identify outside spending/PACs as well as to identify industry financial support of candidates. The Federal Election Commission website is available here with a variety of searching tools and data summaries available.
Wednesday, February 17, 2016
Justice Scalia’s sudden passing has generated a tidal wave of media and academic attention on the future of the Supreme Court. As a corporate law scholar, I have to admit to a tinge of jealousy to be seemingly outside of this controversy, the hand wringing, and the political equivalent of Dungeons and Dragons that has ensued as people examine the various maneuverers available to our elected politicians and those vying-to be elected.
My solution? I searched for pending corporate cases hanging in the balance of the new, and indeterminate, vacancy on the Supreme Court. I wanted to know if there were any cases pending that would likely be decided differently in a post-Scalia court, or at least hang in a 4-4 split and thus uphold the lower court ruling. There isn’t a big juicy corporate law case pending, or at least one that I readily identified.
Not to be deterred, however, there is a case worth highlighting. Americold Realty Trust v. ConAgra Foods, Inc., was argued on January 19th before the Supreme Court (transcript available here). The issue before the Supreme Court in Americold was how to establish the citizenship of a real estate trust for purposes of diversity citizenship. Is the trust's citizenship dependent upon the citizenship of the controlling trustees (as argued by Americold)? Or is it dependent upon the citizenship of the trust beneficiaries (argued by ConAgra Foods), or some combination? Locating citizenship with trustees narrows the potential states and ensures diversity citizenship whereas citizenship with the beneficiaries, of which there are thousands, implicates most states and thus frustrates federal jurisdiction.
At the heart of the oral argument was the 1990 ruling Carden v. Arkoma Associates, which established a bright line between the citizenship of corporations (located in the state of incorporation) and the citizenship of all other artificial business entities (located in the states of the beneficial owners of the business).
In Carden, the Supreme Court wrote:
In 1958 it revised the rule established in Letson, providing that a corporation shall be deemed a citizen not only of its State of incorporation but also "of the State where it has its principal place of business." 28 U.S.C. 1332(c). No provision was made for the treatment of artificial entities other than corporations, although the existence of many new, post-Letson forms of commercial enterprises, including at least the sort of joint stock company ..., the sort of limited partnership association ..., and the sort of Massachusetts business trust ... We have long since decided that, having established special treatment for corporations, we will leave the rest to Congress; we adhere to that decision.
Drawing on the Carden precedent, the question became whether the REIT as issue in Americold was organized as a traditional corporation or not.
Ronald Mann writing for the SCOTUS Blog summarized Justice Scalia’s role in oral argument on this issue with the following:
Justice Antonin Scalia early on asked, “[w]ho owns these assets under Maryland law? Is it . . . this new corporation-type entity? That’s the entity that can sue.” That conclusion led him to dismiss out of hand Americold’s contention that the citizenship of the trust managers should be decisive: “[T]he trustees are sort of in the position of managers, just as though you hired a CEO.”
Scalia's skepticism about the REIT functioning like a corporation was shared by the other Justices despite the fact that modern REITs, in many ways, resemble corporations more so than other unincorporated business entities. REITs have dispersed and diffused shareholders, often with shares traded on public exchanges. This position was articulated by an amicus brief filed by National Association of Real Estate Investment Trusts (NAREIT). The Justices however signaled a truly formalistic approach asking if the entity was indeed formed as a corporation (not did it function as one or was it capitalized as one). Only if so would the state of incorporation rule prevail.
A Justice Scalia-influenced Supreme Court's last word on corporate jurisprudence may very likely be one of pure form over substance. Merely asking which entity form was used without looking at the distinguishing features of a corporation and the justifications for why corporations were treated differently beginning in 1958 produces a corporate law legacy of flimsy jurisprudence. Failing to take into account the market realities and relying upon strict categorical distinctions without reference to function would create a bright line, but not necessarily a bright result.
Friday, February 5, 2016
Starting on the first day of my Advanced Business Associations course, I attempt to tease out the policy underpinnings and theoretical conceptions of entity law and, in particular, corporate law. This turns out to be a somewhat difficult task, since most students in the course, to the extent that they remember anything at all from their experience in the foundational Business Associations course, are more focused on what a corporation is and does than why we might have one in the first place. As the semester proceeds and the readings unfold, the students get more comfortable talking about the rationale for certain aspects of the corporate form and why corporate law structures and operating rules promise to achieve the goals of those organizing a firm as a corporation. But it's a slow process.
I have to believe that some of my fellow law professors face similar challenges with their students. I also believe that instructors in other educational settings face analogous difficulties when they incorporate abstract notions into the teaching of more "black letter" (for want of a better term at this point in my day) concepts. My approach has been to assign readings of primary and secondary material and use classroom discussion time and projects to reveal things about why the corporation exists, why venturers form them (as opposed to conducting business as sole proprietors or using another business form), and what issues we observe and might expect to observe as among corporate constituents as time unfolds. So, I plan to cover everything from the general role of entity law in fostering the conduct of business (by offering off-the-shelf rules for use by venturers in structuring and operating businesses) to notions of corporate personhood and the role of the corporation in society.
I am wondering if there is an alternative to my approach that any of you use in a similar course, or whether there is a particularly good set of foundational readings that you use to approach this set of issues in a business law offering. At the end of this semester, I will have taught this course in this general format twice, and I will be taking stock to shore it up to make sure the third time's a charm. [FYI, I start the semester with Bebchuk and Bainbridge, take a tour through the public company using the Disney case and its corporate documents, then move on to compare/contrast the publicly held firm with closely held corporations and unincorporated business associations before moving into some depth topics (M&A, complex business litigation, corporate social responsibility and the benefit corporation, etc.). It is a two-hour course.] Suggestions and other thoughts in comments or by email are welcomed.
Tuesday, January 5, 2016
On Saturday, January 9, 2016, I will be spending the day at the AALS Section on Socio-Economics Annual Meeting at the Sheraton New York Times Square Hotel. Among other things, I will be part of a panel discussion from 9:50 - 10:50 AM, Death of the Firm: Vulnerabilities and the Changing Structure of Employment. My co-panelists will be June Carbone and Katherine Stone (I am very tempted to give up my 15 minutes and just sit back and listen to these two great scholars, but please don't use the comments section to encourage me to do that). As I understand it, the gist of the discussion will be that while firms once supported a significant part of the safety net that provided employee health and retirement benefits, they have recently abdicated more and more of these responsibilities. At the same time, however, what may be described as subsidies granted by the state to firms -- particularly corporations -- as part of a social contract whereby these firms provided the aforementioned benefits, have not been correspondingly reduced. In fact, the rights of corporations have been expanded by, for example, cases like Citizens United and Hobby Lobby -- suggesting a possible windfall for the minority of individuals best positioned to reap the benefits of corporate growth and insulation. Obviously, competing interpretations of the relevant history abound. Regardless, please stop by if you have the opportunity. Continuing to beat a favorite drum of mine (see here, here, and here), I will be applying the lens of corporate personality theory to the foregoing issue and arguing that corporate personality theory has a role to play both in understanding how we got here and how best to move forward. Additional details, including the entire day’s program, can be found here.
On Monday, January 11, 2016, I will also be participating in the Society of Socio-Economists Annual Meeting, also at the Sheraton. Program details are available here. Again, please stop by if you have the opportunity.
January 5, 2016 in Business Associations, Conferences, Constitutional Law, Corporate Governance, Corporate Personality, Corporations, Current Affairs, Employment Law, Financial Markets, Law and Economics, Shareholders, Stefan J. Padfield | Permalink | Comments (0)
Thursday, October 29, 2015
Kent Greenfield, Professor of Law and Dean’s Research Scholar at Boston College Law School, recently posted a provocative piece on the CLS Blue Sky Blog (here) in which he argues, among other things, that progressives have “flipped” from supporting “corporate citizenship” pre-Citizens United, to supporting “shareholder primacy” post-Citizens United. (Kent has stressed to me that he does not believe this characterization extends to progressive corporate law scholars.) The piece is short, so I recommend you go read it before continuing on to my comments below, because I will simply be taking some short excerpts from his post and providing some responses, which will likely benefit from the reader having reviewed Kent’s post first. As just one disclaimer, Kent’s post is based on his article, “Corporate Citizenship: Goal or Fear?” – and I have not yet read that paper. Also, I consider the following to be very much an in-progress, thinking-out-loud type of project, and thus welcome all comments.
1. In 2010, the Supreme Court decided Citizens United v Federal Election Commission, ruling that corporations had a First Amendment right to spend money from general treasury funds in support of political candidates. Though seen as victory for political conservatives, the decision was in some ways based on a progressive view of the corporation. In the Court’s reasoning, corporations act as “associations of citizens” with rights of free speech.
Kent argues that the historical divide between progressives and conservatives can be viewed as one of “shareholder primacy” versus “corporate citizenship,” with progressives advocating for corporate citizenship while conservatives advance the cause of shareholder primacy. A couple of caveats are in order here. First, we must distinguish “shareholder primacy” as an assertion that shareholders should have the dominant (or at least more) controlling power within the corporation, from “shareholder wealth maximization,” which posits that the goal of corporate control is shareholder wealth maximization, independent of where the decision-making power resides. Second, we should keep in mind the competing corporate personality theories: aggregate theory, artificial entity (concession) theory, and real entity theory. I have argued in the past (see, e.g., here) that both aggregate theory and real entity theory tend to view the corporation as more private than public, with aggregate theory equating the relevant “association of citizens” with shareholders, while real entity theory looks to the board of directors – in either case positing a group of natural persons who can assert constitutional rights against government regulation. Artificial entity theory, on the other hand, views corporations as more public, at least in part because it is essentially impossible to mimic the corporate form solely through private contracting, and thus the state is entitled to more leeway in regulating corporations than natural persons acting in their purely private capacity. In light of all this, it may be better to view progressives as opposing shareholder wealth maximization as the sole goal of corporate governance, while being flexible as to the means used to achieve that end – be it shareholder primacy, director primacy, or “state primacy.” (I am not suggesting that a shift to shareholder primacy as the favored means of achieving the ends of progressive corporate governance is insignificant. Rather, I argue merely that a shift in means is less dramatic than a shift in ends, and thus less appropriately characterized as an ideological flip.) To the extent Citizens United is viewed as having merely strengthened the associational, private view of corporations without challenging the shareholder wealth maximization norm – it is hard to view it as advancing a progressive view of the corporation. In fact, it arguably stands simply as an opinion that gives more political power to corporations to pursue shareholder wealth maximization (or for managers to use shareholder wealth maximization as a justification for self-dealing) at the expense of other stakeholder concerns.
2. The biggest impediment to using the Citizens United moment to change corporate governance for the better is the progressive left.
In light of my comments above, I think there is a stronger argument to be made that the biggest impediment to changing corporate governance for the better is the continuing identification of corporations as purely private entities. It has been said that the greatest trick the devil played was convincing the world he didn’t exist. In this context, we might say the greatest trick played on progressives was convincing them their only viable choices are contractarian.
3. Justice John Paul Stevens’s dissent in Citizens United …. (perhaps unwittingly) bolsters shareholder supremacy by arguing that corporate speech should be limited in order to protect shareholders’ investments.
It may be better to view this part of Justice Stevens’s dissent as challenging the majority’s view that opening the corporate political contribution floodgates is not problematic because “corporate democracy” will address any problems. Meanwhile, Justice Stevens quotes Dartmouth College approvingly, and states that “corporations have been ‘effectively delegated responsibility for ensuring society's economic welfare,’” both of which place him squarely in the concession theory camp – despite his protestations to the contrary.
4. The irony runs the other way as well. In the 2014 Hobby Lobby case, the Court granted corporations the statutory right under the Religious Freedom Restoration Act to object to otherwise applicable regulations on religious grounds. Writing for the Court, Justice Samuel Alito recognized that corporations need not maximize the bottom line ….
Go here for my take on whether Hobby Lobby changed anything in terms of the ability of those who control corporations to pursue “socially responsible” ends. It is worth noting that a corporation’s ability to pursue “socially responsible” ends as part of an overall shareholder-wealth-maximizing strategy in light of the business judgement rule is not necessarily the same thing as concluding corporations will pursue some optimal level of “corporate citizenship,” which may rather require recognizing state power to require such activity or prohibit related harmful activity.
5. The world is flipped. Progressives are championing shareholder rights. Conservatives are planting their ideological flag on the summit of corporate citizenship.
As noted above, to the extent one views progressives as seeking more corporate social responsibility, and being willing to consider alternative methods to that end – be it shareholder primacy, director primacy, or state primacy – I do not see a significant flip here. Meanwhile, to the extent conservatives can be viewed as having supported shareholder wealth maximization as the optimal, but not sole, means to the end of lifting all ships via a rising tide, in addition to being consistently united against government regulation, there is also arguably nothing here that constitutes a significant “flip.”
Of course, generalities like “progressive” and “conservative” typically suffer from significant amounts of imprecision, and it may be that the “flip” characterization is more or less appropriate given the strand of progressive or conservative one is considering.