Tuesday, June 13, 2017

My Favorite Business Law Cases, Round 1: Sinclair Oil Corp. v. Levien (Del. 1971)

I am such a fan of Sinclair Oil Corp. v. Levien,  280 A.2d 717 (Del. 1971), that I use the case in both Business Organizations and in Energy Law. The case does a great job of giving a basic overview of parent-subsidiary relationships, some of the basic fiduciary duties owed in such contexts, and it sets up the discussion of why companies use subsidiaries in the first place. 

On fiduciary duties and when the intrinsic (entire) fairness test applies: 

A parent does indeed owe a fiduciary duty to its subsidiary when there are parent-subsidiary dealings. However, this alone will not evoke the intrinsic fairness standard. This standard will be applied only when the fiduciary duty is accompanied by self-dealing — the situation when a parent is on both sides of a transaction with its subsidiary. Self-dealing occurs when the parent, by virtue of its domination of the subsidiary, causes the subsidiary to act in such a way that the parent receives something from the subsidiary to the exclusion of, and detriment to, the minority stockholders of the subsidiary

On what test to apply to parent-subsidiary dividends: 

We do not accept the argument that the intrinsic fairness test can never be applied to a dividend declaration by a dominated board, although a dividend declaration by a dominated board will not inevitably demand the application of the intrinsic fairness standard. Moskowitz v. Bantrell, 41 Del.Ch. 177, 190 A.2d 749 (Del.Supr. 1963). If such a dividend is in essence self-dealing by the parent, then the intrinsic fairness standard is the proper standard. For example, suppose a parent dominates a subsidiary and its board of directors. The subsidiary has outstanding two classes of stock, X and Y. Class X is owned by the parent and Class Y is owned by minority stockholders of the subsidiary. If the subsidiary, at the direction of the parent, declares a dividend on its Class X stock only, this might well be self-dealing by the parent. It would be receiving something from the subsidiary to the exclusion of and detrimental to its minority stockholders. This self-dealing, coupled with the parent's fiduciary duty, would make intrinsic fairness the proper standard by which to evaluate the dividend payments.

. . . . The dividends resulted in great sums of money being transferred from Sinven to Sinclair. However, a proportionate share of this money was received by the minority shareholders of Sinven. Sinclair received nothing from Sinven to the exclusion of its [722] minority stockholders. As such, these dividends were not self-dealing. We hold therefore that the Chancellor erred in applying the intrinsic fairness test as to these dividend payments. The business judgment standard should have been applied. 

On whether shareholder of one subsidiary should be allowed to participate in ventures pursued by other subsidiaries: 

The plaintiff proved no business opportunities which came to Sinven independently and which Sinclair either took to itself or denied to Sinven. As a matter of fact, with two minor exceptions which resulted in losses, all of Sinven's operations have been conducted in Venezuela, and Sinclair had a policy of exploiting its oil properties located in different countries by subsidiaries located in the particular countries.

It makes sense for companies, often, to use subsidiaries to keep certain businesses well organized and to protect assets for shareholder.  That is, I might only want to invest in a subsidiary doing business in Mexico because I trust that the assets there are secure.  I may not want to participate in work in Venezuela, which I might deemed riskier.  And it's not just shareholders who might feel that way.  Creditors, too, may view such investments very differently and may only be willing to participate in ventures where the risks can be more easily assessed. 

June 13, 2017 in Case Law, Corporations, Joshua P. Fershee, Lawyering, Management, Venture Capital | Permalink | Comments (1)

Wednesday, June 7, 2017

Why Do Companies Bother With Corporate Social Responsibility Reports?

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.

June 7, 2017 in Corporate Governance, Corporate Personality, Corporations, CSR, Current Affairs, Marcia Narine Weldon | Permalink | Comments (0)

Tuesday, June 6, 2017

GM Votes Show Value of Shareholder Proposals as a Process for Accountability

More than two years ago, I posted Shareholder Activists Can Add Value and Still Be Wrongwhere I explained my view on shareholder proposals: 

I have no problem with shareholders seeking to impose their will on the board of the companies in which they hold stock.  I don't see activist shareholder as an inherently bad thing.  I do, however, think  it's bad when boards succumb to the whims of activist shareholders just to make the problem go away.  Boards are well served to review serious requests of all shareholders, but the board should be deciding how best to direct the company. It's why we call them directors.    

Today, the Detroit Free Press reported that shareholders of automaker GM soundly defeated a proposal from billionaire investor David Einhorn that would have installed an alternate slate of board nominees and created two classes of stock.  (All the proposals are available here.) Shareholders who voted were against the proposals by more than 91%.  GM's board, in materials signed by Mary Barra, Chairman & Chief Executive Officer and Theodore Solso, Independent Lead Director, launched an aggressive campaign to maintain the existing board (PDF here) and the split shares proposal (PDF here).  GM argued in the board maintenance piece: 

Greenlight’s Dividend Shares proposal has the potential to disrupt our progress and undermine our performance. In our view, a vote for any of the Greenlight candidates would represent an endorsement of that high-risk proposal to the detriment of your GM investment.

Another shareholder proposal asking the board to separate the board chair and CEO positions was reported by the newspaper as follows: "A separate shareholder proposal that would have forced GM to separate the role of independent board chairman and CEO was defeated by shareholders." Not sure. Though the proposal was defeated, it's worth noting that the proposal would not have "forced" anything.  The proposal was an "advisory shareholder proposal" requesting the separation of the functions.  No mandate here, because such decisions must be made by the board, not the shareholders.  The proposal stated: 

Shareholders request our Board of Directors to adopt as policy, and amend our governing documents as necessary, to require the Chair of the Board of Directors, whenever possible, to be an independent member of the Board. The Board would have the discretion to phase in this policy for the next CEO transition, implemented so it did not violate any existing agreement. If the Board determines that a Chair who was independent when selected is no longer independent, the Board shall select a new Chair who satisfies the requirements of the policy within a reasonable amount of time. Compliance with this policy is waived if no independent director is available and willing to serve as Chair. This proposal requests that all the necessary steps be taken to accomplish the above.

GM argued against this proposal because the "policy advocated by this proposal would take away the Board’s discretion to evaluate and change its leadership structure." Also not true.  It the proposal were mandatory, then this would be true, but as a request, it cannot and could not take away anything.  If the shareholders made such a request and the board declined to follow that request, there might be repercussions for doing so,  but the proposal would have kept in place the "Board’s discretion to evaluate and change its leadership structure."  

These proposals appear to have been properly brought, properly considered, and properly rejected.  As I suggested in 2015, shareholder activists can help improve long-term value, even when following the activists' proposals would not.  That is just as true today and these proposals may well prime the pumpTM for future board or shareholder actions.  That is, GM has conceded that its stock is undervalued and that change is needed.  GM argues those changes are underway, and for now, most voting shareholder agree.  But we'll see how this looks if the stock price has not noticeably improved next year.  An alternative path forward on some key issues has been shared, and that puts pressure on this board to deliver.  They can do it their own way, but they are on notice that there are alternatives.  An shareholders now know that, too.

This knowledge underscores the value of shareholder proposals as a process.  They can and should create accountability, and that is a good thing. I agree with GM that the board should keep control of how it structures the GM leadership team.  But I agree with the shareholders that if this board doesn't perform, it may well be time for a change.  

June 6, 2017 in Corporate Finance, Corporate Governance, Corporations, Current Affairs, Financial Markets, Joshua P. Fershee, Management, Securities Regulation, Shareholders | Permalink | Comments (0)

Friday, June 2, 2017

"Even Bank Robbers Can Tithe"

One of the most striking lines in Provost Jeff Van Duzer's talk at the Nashville Institute of Faith and Work a few months ago was his statement that "even bank robbers can tithe."

See a somewhat similar version of that talk here.

Jeff Van Duzer's point seemed to be that you cannot be a truly socially responsible company simply by giving some money to good causes. I think he was exactly right. He went on to explain that socially responsible businesses should focus on creating good products and good jobs. 

This week I was thinking about Jeff Van Duzer's talk when I considered, for about the one hundredth time, how to define social enterprises.

Think about Ben & Jerry's, a company that comes up at almost every social enterprise conference. While I can think of some good that ice cream does, I wonder if Ben & Jerry's main products are, on the whole, socially beneficial. We have a serious, deadly obesity problem in the country, and Ben & Jerry's products seem to be contributing to this problem. Perhaps Ben & Jerry's ice cream is more healthy than most options or uses more natural ingredients (I am unsure if this is true), but are Ben & Jerry's core products a net benefit to society? Perhaps Ben & Jerry's tip the scale in the social direction by providing good jobs with good benefits. However, Ben & Jerry's is best known for their giving and advocacy, which any business (no matter how socially destructive) could do.

The same arguments could be made against Hershey and Mars Corp., both of which are also well known for their focus on social responsibility. Are there certain industries that social enterprises should avoid altogether? Or should social enterprises enter all industries and try to make them incrementally better?

As a consumer, I am becoming more convinced that providing good products should among the very highest priorities. High quality products and thoughtful customer service is becoming increasingly difficult to find.

Given that I have two young children, Melissa & Doug toys come to mind as a company that is doing it right. Their products are durable and well-designed. Their products are designed to encourage Free Play, Creativity, Imagination, Learning, Discovery. Little Tikes is an older, but similar, company. I have never heard Melissa & Doug or Little Tikes referred to as "social enterprises," but, in my opinion, both companies benefit society much more than many of the frequently mentioned "social enterprises." 

June 2, 2017 in Corporations, CSR, Current Affairs, Haskell Murray, Social Enterprise | Permalink | Comments (5)

Tuesday, May 30, 2017

LLCs Are Not Corporations: "Corporate" Disclosure Edition

Regular readers know that I monitor courts and other legal outlets for improper references to LLCs as "limited liability corporations" when the writer means "limited liability companies." I get a Westlaw update every day. Really. Every day. So while it may seem that I write about examples a lot, I tend to think I am showing great restraint.  

At times, this is just a semantic issue, or at least a more amorphous "how one thinks about entities" issue.  Usually, at a minimum such cases can cause confusion about entity type and what laws apply, which may eventually lead courts to an improper analysis and application of the wrong laws.  It certainly leads some lawyers to incorrectly characterize their clients and their cases.  

For example, a recent case from the United States District Court for the Western District of Washington gets the law right, but still creates some potential confusion. Consider this excerpt: 

Cash & Carry asserts that the court's jurisdiction is based on diversity of citizenship. (Not. at 2.) For purposes of assessing diversity, the court must consider the domicile of all members of a limited liability company. Johnson v. Columbia Props. Anchorage, LP, 437 F.3d 894, 899 (9th Cir. 2006) (“[A]n LLC is a citizen of every state of which its owners/members are citizens.”); see also Local Rules W.D. Wash. LCR 101(e). Plaintiff Deborah Markham alleges that she is a Washington resident. (Compl. (Dkt. # 2) ¶ 1.2.) However, neither the complaint nor the notice of removal identifies Cash & Carry's members or the domicile of those members. (See id. ¶ 1.3 (alleging that Cash & Carry is “a limited liability corporation formed under the laws of the State of Washington”); Not. at 2.)
DEBORAH MARKHAM, Plaintiff, v. CASH & CARRY STORES, LLC, et al., Defendants., No. C17-0746JLR, 2017 WL 2241136, at *1 (W.D. Wash. May 23, 2017) (emphasis added).  It'd have been great for the court to note that Cash & Carry's claim it was "a limited liability corporation" was incorrect.  Instead, the court then stated, "Furthermore, Cash & Carry's corporate disclosure statement fails to establish Cash & Carry's domicile. (CDS (Dkt. # 4).)" Id. As an LLC, Cash & Carry isn't "corporate," but because of the local rules for the Western District of Washington, it does have an obligation to make a "corporate disclosure." See U.S. Dist. Ct. Rules W.D. Wash., Civ LR 7.1.
 
Rule 7.1. Disclosure Statement

(a) Who Must File; Contents. A nongovernmental corporate party must file 2 copies of a disclosure statement that:

(1) identifies any parent corporation and any publicly held corporation owning 10% or more of its stock; or

(2) states that there is no such corporation.

(b) Time to File; Supplemental Filing. A party must:

(1) file the disclosure statement with its first appearance, pleading, petition, motion, response, or other request addressed to the court; and

(2) promptly file a supplemental statement if any required information changes.

However, in Washington, the Local Rule 7.1 adds to the requirements of the federal "disclosure statement":

CORPORATE DISCLOSURE STATEMENT

(a) Who Must File; Copies

Any nongovernmental party, other than an individual or sole proprietorship, must file a corporate disclosure statement identifying:

  1. any parent corporation and any publicly held corporation owning more than 10% of its stock;

  2. any member or owner in a joint venture or limited liability corporation (LLC);

  3. all partners in a partnership or limited liability partnership (LLP); or

  4. any corporate member, if the party is any other unincorporated association

If there is no parent, shareholder, member, or partner to list in response to items (1) through (4), a corporate disclosure statement must still be filed stating that no such entity exists.

In this instance, the Local Rule changes the disclosure to "corporate disclosure," when it would appear this is really an "ownership" or "financial interest" disclosure.  (And, while I am being picky, isn't it odd to have a subpart "a," when there is not subpart "b?" I suspect this subpart notation is to track subpart a of Federal Rule 7.1, but it still looks odd to me.)  
 
This is not the first time a local rule has created some potential trouble with regard to Federal Rule 7.1.  Back in January of this year I posted Oops: Oregon District Court Rule For LLCs that are Defined as Corporations, which discussed some different concerns for the Oregon District Court's expansion of Rule 7.1. I will note that the LLC reference in the Oregon District Court Local Rule remains incorrect
 
I am prepared for the "no harm, no foul" comment. And maybe that's right. But it still seems like courts (and lawyers) should be able to get this right more often. 

May 30, 2017 in Corporations, Joshua P. Fershee, Lawyering, LLCs | Permalink | Comments (0)

Wednesday, May 24, 2017

Should social entrepreneurs form nonprofits or benefit corporations?

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 mweldon@law.miami.edu.

 

May 24, 2017 in Corporate Personality, Corporations, CSR, Entrepreneurship, Marcia Narine Weldon, Nonprofits, Social Enterprise | Permalink | Comments (2)

Monday, May 22, 2017

Shareholder Wealth Maximization at the Firm Level

I ask my Advanced Business Associations students to recognize and process theory and policy and relate them to doctrine at the practical level.  This is, as most of you will recognize, a tall order of business for students who have just recently learned what business associations law is and may not yet (at the time they take the course) have applied the law in a practical context outside the classroom.  (The course is open to 2L and 3L students who have already taken Business Associations.)

So, when it came time to lionize my friends Lyman Johnson and David Millon at a symposium honoring their work (which, as you may recall, I first heralded on the BLPB a year ago and wrote a bit about back in October), I decided to put my scholarship pen (keyboard) where my teaching mouth is.  My goal for the symposium was to write something that linked theory and policy through doctrine to law practice and, at the same time, incorporated Lyman's and David's work. The essay I produced in fulfillment of these objectives was recently released and posted to SSRN.  I excerpted from it in my post on Saturday.  The full SSRN abstract follows.

In context, corporate law is often credited with creating, hewing to, or reinforcing a shareholder wealth maximization norm. The now infamous opinion in Dodge v. Ford Motor Co. describes the norm in a relatively bald and narrow way: “A business corporation is organized and carried on primarily for the profit of the stockholders." As a matter of theory and policy, commentators from the academy (law and business) and practice (lawyers and judges) have taken various views on this asserted norm—ranging from characterizing the norm as nonexistent or oversimplified to maintaining it as simple fact.

In an effort to broaden the conversation about the shareholder wealth maximization norm in an applied context, this essay describes shareholder wealth maximization under various state laws (in and outside Delaware) as a function of firm-level corporate governance—corporate law statutes, decisional law interpreting and filling gaps in that statutory law, and corporate charter and bylaw provisions—as applicable to both publicly held and privately held corporations in a variety of states. In this overall context, the essay considers the possibility that holders of shares in for-profit corporations may desire to maximize overall utility in their shareholdings of a particular firm, rather than merely the financial wealth arising from those holdings. To accomplish its purpose, the essay first briefly and generally addresses shareholder wealth maximization as a function of applicable statutory and decisional law and as a matter of private ordering (collecting, synthesizing, and characterizing, in each case, points made in the extant literature) before suggesting the broad implications of that analysis for corporate governance and shareholder wealth maximization and concluding. Ultimately, the essay makes a case for a more nuanced look at the shareholder wealth maximization norm. Given differences in doctrine and public policy among the states and variance in that doctrine and public policy among public, private, and statutory close or closely held corporations within individual states, answers to open questions are likely to (and should) depend on individualized facts assessed through the lens of specific statutory and decisional law and applicable public policy.

I fear that this short piece does not do the subject (or Lyman and David's amazing work) justice.  But my biggest regret is that the essay went to press without the addition of thanks to two special folks in my author's footnote.  I want to call those two colleagues out here.  

Continue reading

May 22, 2017 in Business Associations, Corporate Governance, Corporations, Haskell Murray, Joan Heminway, Teaching | Permalink | Comments (2)

Saturday, May 20, 2017

Loyalty to Whom (or What)?

Loyalty has been in the news lately.  The POTUS, according to some reports, asked former Federal Bureau of Investigation ("FBI") Director James Comey to pledge his loyalty.  Assuming the basic veracity of those reports, was the POTUS referring to loyalty to the country or to him personally?  Perhaps both and perhaps, as Peter Beinart avers in The Atlantic, the POTUS and others fail to recognize a distinction between the two.  Yet, identifying the object of a duty can be important.

I have observed that the duty of government officials is not well understood in the public realm. Donna Nagy's fine work on this issue in connection with the proposal of the Stop Trading on Congressional Knowledge ("STOCK") Act, later adopted by Congress, outlines a number of ways in which Congressmen and Senators, among others, may owe fiduciary duties to others.  If you have not yet been introduced to this scholarship, I highly recommend it.  If we believe that government officials are entrusted with information, among other things, in their capacity as public servants, they owe duties to the government and its citizens to use that information in authorized ways for the benefit of that government and those citizens.  In fact, Professor Nagy's congressional testimony as part of the hearings on the STOCK Act includes the following in this regard:

Given the Constitution's repeated reference to public offices being “of trust,” and Members’ oath of office to “faithfully discharge” their duties, I would predict that a court would be highly likely to find that Representatives and Senators owe fiduciary-like duties of trust and confidence to a host of parties who may be regarded as the source of material nonpublic congressional knowledge. Such duties of trust and confidence may be owed to, among others:

  • the citizen-investors they serve;
  • the United States;
  • the general public;
  • Congress, as well as the Senate or the House;
  • other Members of Congress; and
  • federal officials outside of Congress who rely on a Member’s loyalty and integrity.

There is precious little in federal statutes, regulations, and case law on the nature--no less the object--of any fiduciary the Director of the FBI may have.  The authorizing statute and regulations provide little illumination.  Federal court opinions give us little more.  See, e.g., Banks v. Francis, No. 2:15-CV-1400, 2015 WL 9694627, at *3 (W.D. Pa. Dec. 18, 2015), report and recommendation adopted, No. CV 15-1400, 2016 WL 110020 (W.D. Pa. Jan. 11, 2016) ("Plaintiff does not identify any specific, mandatory duty that the federal officials — Defendants Hornak, Brennan, and the FBI Director— violated; he merely refers to an overly broad duty to uphold the U.S. Constitution and to see justice done.").  Accordingly, any applicable fiduciary duty likely would arise out of agency or other common law.  Section 8.01 of the Restatement (Third) of Agency provides "An agent has a fiduciary duty to act loyally for the principal's benefit in all matters connect with the agency relationship."  

But who is the principal in any divined agency relationship involving the FBI Director?  

Continue reading

May 20, 2017 in Agency, Business Associations, Corporate Governance, Corporations, Current Affairs, Joan Heminway, Securities Regulation | Permalink | Comments (4)

Wednesday, May 17, 2017

Seven Ted Talks that Will Change the Way You Look at Business (According to Entrepreneur Magazine)

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:

May 17, 2017 in Corporate Personality, Corporations, Entrepreneurship, Marcia Narine Weldon | Permalink | Comments (0)

Thursday, May 11, 2017

Does the Bar Exam Put Business Clients At Risk?

The Legal Skills Prof Blog has posted an article entitled Our Broken Bar Exam by Deborah Jones Merritt. The post discusses Merritt’s proposal for a task force on the bar exam. Merritt’s article states, among other things:

The bar exam is broken: it tests too much and too little. On the one hand, the exam forces applicants to memorize hundreds of black-letter rules that they will never use in practice. On the other hand, the exam licenses lawyers who don’t know how to interview a client, compose an engagement letter, or negotiate with an adversary.
 
This flawed exam puts clients at risk. It also subjects applicants to an expensive, stressful process that does little to improve their professional competence... The bar examination should test the ability of an applicant to identify legal issues in a statement of facts, such as may be encountered in the practice of law, to engage in a reasoned analysis of the issues, and to arrive at a logical solution by the application of fundamental legal principles, in a manner which demonstrates a thorough understanding of these principles... Why doesn’t our definition of minimum competence include cognitive skills that are essential for effective client representation? The answer does not lie in the fact that these skills are difficult to test on a written exam. Research, fact gathering, interviewing, and other lawyering skills are cognitive abilities.

We could test for these skills by directing test-takers to outline a research plan, interview approach, or negotiation strategy based on a mock client file. Test-takers could also identify potential pitfalls, fall back positions, and ethical issues associated with their plan. These questions are no more difficult to draft and grade than classic issue-spotter essay questions. The primary reason we don’t test bar candidates on these skills is that law schools don’t stress them. Schools teach some professional competencies (like appellate advocacy) quite effectively, but relegate others to a corner of the curriculum. Employers and state supreme courts have urged law schools to teach a fuller range of lawyer competencies, but most schools have resisted…

Here are some of the many ideas that the task force could consider:

  • Develop MBE and essay questions that test fundamental principles and legal reasoning, rather than memorization. As proposed above, practicing lawyers could serve as test subjects to validate these questions.
  • Allow test-takers to refer to notes, codes, and other sources while taking the bar exam. This practice would more accurately measure professional knowledge.
  • Develop tests for more of the competencies that new lawyers perform.
  • Replace some (or all) multiple-choice and essay questions with performance-oriented case files like those presented on the Multistate Performance Test (MPT).
  • Allow examinees to take portions of the exam at different times, including after the first year of law school.
  • Work with law schools to create lawyering classes that would substitute for portions of the bar exam, as the University of New Hampshire has done. Bar examiners could audit these classes for content and rigor.
  • Encourage bar associations, law schools, and other organizations to develop postgraduate lawyering institutes to replace some (or all) of the bar exam. Law graduates currently spend more than $100 million annually on bar review courses—in addition to the fees they pay to take the bar. That money could support six to eight week intensive summer programs to teach and assess new graduates’ lawyering competence.

I thought about these criticisms and recommendations as I graded my Business Associations exam this week. Every year, I dutifully spend time on GPs, LPs, and LLPs in class and test on them during exam time because the Florida bar tests on these business subjects every year. The bar pays scant attention to LLCs even though that’s the fastest growing business entity in my state. Indeed, I have had almost a dozen guest speakers in my startup law skills class, and all of the attorneys indicated that they deal almost exclusively with LLCs and corporations. I worry when I spend time on interviewing and negotiation skills in the doctrinal class because the bar won’t test on these topics, but these are precisely the skills my students will need in practice.

Perhaps I worry for nothing. After the administration of every bar exam, I receive notes from students indicating that they felt prepared for both the exam and for life after law school. But I fear that schools do too little to prepare students for either. I highly recommend that you read Merritt’s article and if you agree with her, work with your state bar and the NCBE on reform.


 


 

 

May 11, 2017 in Corporations, Current Affairs, Law School, Lawyering, LLCs, Marcia Narine Weldon, Teaching | Permalink | Comments (0)

Tuesday, May 2, 2017

Fake News! Trump's LLCs Are Not Corporations

It's exam-grading time, so my focus is largely on that.  I did do my usual peruse of the news, though, and I found a whole host of news outlets discussing President Trump's tax plan, which proposes to lower income tax rates on pass-through entities.  As one of the pieces explains

Pass-through income, for those of you who aren’t tax nerds, is business income that’s reported on a personal return. It comes from partnerships, limited-liability corporations and other closely held businesses, including Trump’s own family real estate operation.

First of all, knowing about pass-through income does not make you a tax nerd. I don't think. 

Beyond that, though, limited liability corporations are not a thing.  And, limited liability companies (LLCs) are generally chosen for pass-though tax status, but they don't have to be. They can chose to be taxed as C corporations at the federal level, if they wish.  Furthermore, partnerships, such as MLPs, and LLCs don't have to be closely held. They can be publicly traded.  

Multiple outlets got on the incorrect"limited-liability corporations" bandwagon. Even Barron's! Oh, well.. For now, I guess I will just continue to note that LLCs are still limited liability companies.  

Happy grading to those in the same boat, and good thoughts to the students taking our exams.  We really do want you to succeed, so please, show us what you know. 

 

May 2, 2017 in Corporations, Joshua P. Fershee, LLCs, Partnership | Permalink | Comments (2)

Wednesday, April 26, 2017

What's next for conflict minerals legislation? My views and the GAO report

Last week, a reporter interviewed me regarding conflict minerals.The reporter specifically asked whether I believed there would be more litigation on conflict minerals and whether the SEC's lack of enforcement would cause companies to stop doing due diligence. I am not sure which, if any, of my remarks will appear in print so I am posting some of my comments below:

I expect that if conflict minerals legislation survives, it will take a different form. The SEC asked for comments at the end of January, and I've read most of the comment letters. Many, including Trillium Asset Management, focus on the need to stay the course with the Rule, citing some success in making many mines conflict free. Others oppose the rule because of the expense. However, it appears that the costs haven't been as high as most people expected, and indeed many of the tech companies such as Apple and Intel have voiced support for the rule. It's likely that they have already operationalized the due diligence. The SEC has limits on what it can do, so I expect Congress to take action, unless there is an executive order from President Trump, which people have been expecting since February. 
 
The Senate Foreign Relations subcommittee on Africa held a hearing on conflict minerals on April 5, and some of the witnesses and Senators talked about what hasn't worked with the rule. Although the situation has improved, the violence continues, most notably with the murder of a member of the UN Group of Experts just last week. Rick Goss from the Information Technology Council testified the while the Rule has had some benefits such as increased transparency and raising global awareness, there are also things that don't work. He discussed fact that the illicit trade in gold continues and criminal elements are still exploiting other resources. A number of his and other witness' proposed solutions were more holistic and geopolitical and went beyond the SEC's purview, and I think that's where the government should look when trying to address these issues. You may see a push toward a safe harbor, which came up in some of the comment letters, and which was a point of discussion during the Senate testimony. With a safe harbor, the issuer could rely on supplier certifications.
 
Lack of enforcement or less enforcement could cause more issuers to continue to do business or start doing business there because it will be less onerous. On the other hand, with with the EU's conflict mineral rules, which will come into play in 2021 and which covers the same minerals (but is not limited in geography) you may find that the big issuers decide to stay the course with due diligence.
 
I have been focusing my research on the consumer aspect of these name and shame laws. While there have been conflict-free campuses and conflict-free cities (and some of them sent letters to the SEC), I haven't seen solid evidence that shows that consumers are boycotting the companies that aren't doing the full due diligence that 1502 requires or rewarding those that do. Apple is a stand-out in conflict minerals compliance but they also happen to sell something that people really want.
 
Although firms like Trillium state that investors like the transparency, they are likely benefitting from an improved supply chain in general because companies that attempted to follow 1502 by necessity had to upgrade systems and supplier protocols.
 
So in sum, I think that the firms that are already doing what they are supposed to may continue to do so (or scale back just a little) and may tout these voluntary efforts in their CSR reports. Those who have been unable to determine the origin of their minerals won't likely do any more than they have to or may just source their minerals elsewhere.
 
If Congress keeps the rule, I recommend that the SEC:
 
1) limit reporting obligations to those companies that manufacture products;
2) add a de minimis exception to the Conflict Minerals Rule; and
3) include a safe harbor provision to allow issuers to rely upon defined contract provisions and supplier certifications.
 
Ideally, theTrump government should take the onus of the responsibility for solving this human rights crisis off the private sector and instead work with the Congolese government, other governments, and NGOs on holistic solutions, especially as it relates to the members of the armed forces, who are also involved in illegal mineral trade and human rights abuses.
 

Just today, the GAO issued a report on conflict minerals. Dodd-Frank requires an annual report on the effectiveness of the rule "in promoting peace and security in the DRC and adjoining countries." Of note, the report explained that:

After conducting due diligence, an estimated 39 percent of the companies reported in 2016 that they were able to determine that their conflict minerals came from covered countries or from scrap or recycled sources, compared with 23 percent in 2015. Almost all of the companies that reported conducting due diligence in 2016 reported that they could not determine whether the conflict minerals financed or benefited armed groups, as in 2015 and 2014. (emphasis added).

The Trump Administration, some SEC commissioners, and many in Congress have already voiced their concerns about this legislation. I didn't have the benefit of the GAO report during my interview, but it will likely provide another nail in the coffin of the conflict minerals rule. 

 

 

 

April 26, 2017 in Compliance, Corporate Governance, Corporations, CSR, Current Affairs, Human Rights, International Law, Legislation, Marcia Narine Weldon, Securities Regulation | Permalink | Comments (1)

Wednesday, April 19, 2017

Is Hashtag Activism Finally Changing Corporate Culture?

Ratings behemoth Bill O'Reilly is out of a job at Fox News “after thorough and careful review of the [sexual harassment] allegations” against him by several women. Fox had settled with almost half a dozen women before these allegations came to light, causing advertisers to leave in droves once the media reported on it. According to one article, social media activists played a major role in the loss of dozens of sponsors. Despite the revelations, or perhaps in a show of support, O’Reilly’s ratings actually went up even as advertisers pulled out. Fox terminated O’Reilly-- who had just signed a new contract worth $20 million per year-- the day before its parent company’s board was scheduled to meet to discuss the matter. The employment lawyer in me also wonders if the company was trying to preempt any negligent retention liability, but I digress.

An angry public also took to social media to expose United Airlines' after its ill-fated decision to have a passenger forcibly removed from his seat to make room for crew members. However, despite the estimated 3.5 million impressions on Twitter of #BoycottUnited, the airline will not likely suffer financially in the long term because of its near monopoly on some key routes. United’s stock price nosedived by $800 million right after the disturbing video surfaced, but has rebounded somewhat with EPS beating estimates. Check out Haskell Murray's recent post here for more perspective on United.

Pepsi and supermodel Kendall Jenner also suffered more embarrassment than financial loss after people around the world erupted on social media over an ad that many believed trivialized the Black Lives Matter movement. Pepsi pulled the controversial ad within 24 hours. Some believe that Pepsi may suffer in sales, but I’m not so sure. Ironically, Pepsi’s stock price went up during the scandal and went down after the company apologized.

Pepsi and United both suffered public relations nightmares, but the skeptic in me believes that consumers will ultimately focus on what’s most important to them- convenience, quality, price, and in Pepsi’s case, taste. I recently attended my 25th law school reunion, and all of my colleagues who used a ride sharing app used Uber nowithstanding its well-publicized leadership scandals and the #deleteuber campaign. Indeed, many social media campaigns actually backfire. The #grabyourwallet boycott of Ivanka Trump’s brand raised public awareness but may have actually led to its recent record sales.

Reasonable people can disagree about whether social media campaigns and threats of consumer boycotts actually cause long-standing and permanent changes in corporate culture or policy. There is no doubt, however, that CEOs and PR departments will be working more closely than ever in the age of viral videos and 24-hour worldwide Twitter feeds.

April 19, 2017 in Corporations, CSR, Current Affairs, Employment Law, Ethics, Financial Markets, Marcia Narine Weldon | Permalink | Comments (1)

Monday, April 17, 2017

Visioning the Publicly Held Benefit Corporation

As Haskell earlier announced here at the BLPB, The first U.S. benefit corporation went public back in February--just before publication of my paper from last summer's 8th Annual Berle Symposium (about which I and other BLPB participants contemporaneously wrote here, here, and here).  Although I was able to mark the closing of Laureate Education, Inc.'s public offering in last-minute footnotes, my paper for the symposium treats the publicly held benefit corporation as a future likelihood, rather than a reality.  Now, the actual experiment has begun.  It is time to test the "visioning" in this paper, which I recently posted to SSRN.  Here is the abstract.

Benefit corporations have enjoyed legislative and, to a lesser extent, popular success over the past few years. This article anticipates what recently (at the eve of its publication) became a reality: the advent of a publicly held U.S. benefit corporation — a corporation with public equity holders that is organized under a specialized U.S. state statute requiring corporations to serve both shareholder wealth aims and social or environmental objectives. Specifically, the article undertakes to identify and comment on the structure and function of U.S. benefit corporations and the unique litigation risks to which a publicly held U.S. benefit corporation may be subject. In doing so, the article links the importance of a publicly held benefit corporation's public benefit purpose to litigation risk management from several perspectives. In sum, the distinctive features of the benefit corporation form, taken together with key attendant litigation risks for publicly held U.S. benefit corporations (in each case, as identified in this article), confirm and underscore the key role that corporate purpose plays in benefit corporation law.

Ultimately, this article brings together a number of things I wanted to think and write about, all in one paper.  While many of the observations and conclusions may seem obvious, I found the exploration helpful to my thinking about benefit corporation law and litigation risk management.  Perhaps you will, too . . . .

April 17, 2017 in Anne Tucker, Business Associations, Corporate Governance, Corporations, Current Affairs, Haskell Murray, Joan Heminway, Litigation, Management, Social Enterprise | Permalink | Comments (0)

Tuesday, April 11, 2017

Why Do So Many People Assume States Can Disregard Series LLCs?

The Uniform Law Commission is in the process of considering the Limited Liability Company Protected Series Act (f/k/a Series of Unincorporated Business Entities Act), and the final reading is schedule to take place in July 2017.  (Draft is here.) I have been discussing the challenges of Series LLCs with a variety of folks, and it strikes me that a consistent theme about the Series LLC is a concern about asset protection between each LLC in there Series. That is, there is concern that some courts may disregard the separateness of each LLC in the Series and treat the entire Series as a single entity.  I share this concern, but it strikes me that it is a rather outlandish concern that a court would do so without some significant level of fraud or other injustice to warrant whatever the state version of veil piercing would mandate. 

One source goes so far as to state: 

Case law has not been developed on Series LLCs yet, and there is much fear in the professional world that the assets may not be as protected as when the entity is formed. What is clear is that the “corporate formalities” must be carefully followed, such that:

  1. Separate books and records should be maintained for each series;

  2. Creditors need to be made specifically aware of the separate existence of each series; and

  3. The assets of each must be unambiguously identified as belonging to that series.

I don't consider these corporate formalities as at all, given that we're talking about an LLC, but it's true that any Series LLC would be well served to follow the entity formalities we'd expect of any entity seeking to protect limited liability.  Perhaps because the Series LLC as an entity is new, there is a need for heightened vigilance, but I am of the mind these kinds of measures are proper for all entities, if one wants to reduce the likelihood of veil piercing, enterprise liability, or other agency/guarantor concerns.  

Another source warns of the risks of the Series LLC:

The biggest problem with series LLCs is that many states (including California) don’t have series legislation and may choose to ignore the laws of the state where the series was created. That’s because you’re subject to their rules when doing business in their state. The example of the attitude of the California Franchise Tax Board applies to fees, but liability protection is also an issue. Since series LLCs are so new they’ve never been tested by courts, even in the states that permit them. That means there’s no guarantee that limited liability protection will be extended to each series until every state rules on the subject. It’s hard to see how a court would choose to grant this kind of protection inside one entity, and only time will tell if courts will do this. But do you want this type of uncertainty when you are trying to protect your assets?

Again, perhaps valid, but the idea that a state would simply ignore a properly created entity formed in another state is an outrageous proposition, in my mind.  If a state sees fit to define an entity, and such an entity is properly formed, that should be sufficient to follow the entity rules.  That might be different if a state were to write a law that specifically disallows certain kinds of entity structures. (I'd likely have a problem with that, too, but on the merits of such a law.)  And some laws clearly change the analysis, like bankruptcy. But to simply disregard another state's entity structure if the business is properly operating? That's not right.  

Anyway, I agree with those who are cautious about the relative limited liability protections of the Series LLC, especially outside of the eight(?) states that have such laws (Delaware, Nevada, Illinois, Iowa, Oklahoma, Tennessee, Texas and Utah). But I do find it disturbing that so many people are comfortable with the idea that courts would (and perhaps should) be so inherently skeptical of a structure chosen by a state legislature that the court would disregard the concept completely.  I am all for requiring entities to be clear which entity is to bound (and I think those doing business with those entities should seek guarantees, co-signers, or other assurances where they want them).  Courts allowing plaintiffs to expand limited liability beyond a Series entity to include other entities, based only on the use of the Series structure, is different. Like haphazard veil piercing, such decisions run the risk of incentivizing careless or ambiguous drafting and give creditors a chance to pursue a windfall in the form of an un-negotiated guarantee. 

As I often remind my students, to argue against the concept of limited liability is a very different thing than arguing that the current law allows one to disregard an entity in a particular circumstance. One asks, "What should be?,"  while the other asks, "What is?"  And to dislike the idea of a Series LLC is very different than suggesting a Series LLC law is invalid.  There, the former says what the law should be,"  while the latter says that what is, is not.  

 

April 11, 2017 in Corporations, Delaware, Joshua P. Fershee, LLCs, Unincorporated Entities | Permalink | Comments (1)

Tuesday, April 4, 2017

Equal Pay Day Applied to M & A

The Washington Post reports

Back in 2015, Salesforce CEO Marc Benioff admitted something many CEOs wouldn't: The company had found a pay gap between the men and women who worked for the cloud computing giant, and it was spending $3 million to fix it. Now after acquisitions and rampant growth at the company brought in 7,000 new employees in the past year, he's doing it again, announcing Tuesday that the company has spent another $3 million to adjust for a pay gap that affects 11 percent of its more than 25,000 employees.

In an interview with The Washington Post, Benioff said he believed the re-opened gap was largely because of the company's acquisitive streak -- it bought 14 companies in its last fiscal year, the largest in its history. When companies acquire others, Benioff said, "you buy their pay practices, and this pay practice -- of, basically, gender discrimination -- is quite dramatic through our industry and other industries," he said.

If one cares about equal pay, and I think people should (beyond just today), one needs to account for it in the purchase price of another entity.  This is a great reminder about the due diligence process. We need to think about all the things that matter to our clients (and ask them what those things are). The cost of implementing those things that matter, in addition to all the traditional things we worry about in an acquisition, should be accounted for if we want to maximize benefit for clients.   

April 4, 2017 in Compensation, Corporations, Current Affairs, Joshua P. Fershee | Permalink | Comments (0)

Wednesday, March 22, 2017

What does the EU know that the U.S. Doesn’t About the Effectiveness of Conflict Minerals Legislation?

Earlier this month, the EU announced plans to implement its version of conflict minerals legislation, which covers all “conflict-affected and high-risk areas” around the world. Once approved by the Council of the EU, the law will apply to all importers into the EU of minerals or metals containing or consisting of tin, tantalum, tungsten, or gold (with some exceptions). Compliance and reporting will begin in January 2021. Importers must use OECD due diligence standards, report on their progress to suppliers and the public, and use independent third-party auditors. President Trump has not yet issued an executive order on Dodd-Frank §1502, aka conflict minerals, but based on a leaked memo, observers believe that it's just a matter of time before that law is repealed here in the U.S. So why is there a difference in approach?

In response to a request for comments from the SEC, the U.S Chamber of Commerce, which led the legal battle against §1502, claimed, “substantial evidence shows that the conflict minerals rule has exacerbated the humanitarian crisis on the ground in the Democratic Republic of the Congo…The reports public companies are mandated to file also contribute to ―information overload and create further disincentives for businesses to go public or remain public companies. Accordingly, the Chamber strongly supports Congressional repeal of Section 1502 due to its all-advised and fundamentally flawed approach to solving a geopolitical crisis, and the substantial burden it imposes upon public companies and their shareholders.”

The Enough Project, which spearheaded the passage of §1502, submitted an eight-page statement to the SEC last month stating, among other things, that they “strongly oppose[] any suspension, weakening, or repeal of the current Conflict Minerals Rule, and urge[] the SEC to increase enforcement of the Rule….The Rule has led to improvements in the rule of law in the mining sectors of Congo, Rwanda, and other Great Lakes countries, contributed to improvements in humanitarian conditions in Congo and a weakening of key insurgent groups, and resulted in tangible benefits for U.S. corporations and their supply chains.”

I agree that the Rule has led to increased transparency and efficiency in supply chains (although some would differ), and less armed control of mines. But I’m not sure that the overall human rights conditions have improved as significantly as §1502’s advocates (and I) would have liked.

As Amnesty International’s 2016/2017 report on DRC explains in graphic detail, “armed groups committed a wide range of abuses including: summary executions; abductions; cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment; rape and other sexual violence; and the looting of civilian property... various ... armed groups (local and community-based militias) were among those responsible for abuses against civilians. The Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) continued to be active and commit abuses in areas bordering South Sudan and the Central African Republic. In… North Kivu, civilians were massacred, usually by machetes, hoes and axes. On the night of 13 August, 46 people were killed … by suspected members of the Allied Democratic Forces (ADF), an armed group from Uganda that maintains bases in eastern DRC…Hundreds of women and girls were subjected to sexual violence in conflict-affected areas. Perpetrators included soldiers and other state agents, as well as combatants of armed groups…Hundreds of children were recruited by armed groups...”

Human Rights Watch’s 2017 report isn’t any better. According to HRW, “dozens of armed groups remained active in eastern Congo. Many of their commanders have been implicated in war crimes, including ethnic massacres, killing of civilians, rape, forced recruitment of children, and pillage. In … North Kivu, unidentified fighters continued to commit large-scale attacks on civilians, killing more than 150 people in 2016 … At least 680 people have been killed since the beginning of the series of massacres in October 2014. There are credible reports that elements of the Congolese army were involved in the planning and execution of some of these killings. Intercommunal violence increased as fighters … carried out ethnically based attacks on civilians, killing at least 170 people and burning at least 2,200 homes.

Finally, according to a February 17, 2017 statement from the Trump Administration, “the United States is deeply concerned by video footage that appears to show elements of the armed forces of the Democratic Republic of Congo summarily executing civilians, including women and children. Such extrajudicial killing, if confirmed, would constitute gross violations of human rights and threatens to incite widespread violence and instability in an already fragile country. We call upon the Government of the Democratic Republic of Congo to launch an immediate and thorough investigation, in collaboration with international organizations responsible for monitoring human rights, to identify those who perpetrated such heinous abuses, and to hold accountable any individual proven to have been involved.”

Most Americans have no idea of the atrocities occurring in DRC or other conflict zones around the world. I have spent the past few years researching business and human rights, particularly in conflict zones in Latin America and Africa. I filed an amicus brief in 2013 and have written and blogged about the failure of disclosure regimes a dozen times because I don’t believe that name and shame laws stop the murder, rape, conscription of  child soldiers, and the degradation of innocent people. I applaud the EU and all of the NGOs that have attempted to solve this intractable problem. But it doesn't seem that enough has changed since my visit to DRC in 2011 where I personally saw 5 massacre victims in the road on the way to visit a mine, and met with rape survivors, village chiefs, doctors, members of the clergy and others who pleaded for help from the U.S. Unfortunately, I don’t think this legislation has worked. Ironically, the U.S. and EU legislation go too far and not far enough. I hope that if the U.S. and EU focus on a more holistic, well-reasoned geopolitical solution with NGOS, stakeholders, and business.

March 22, 2017 in Compliance, Corporate Governance, Corporations, CSR, Current Affairs, Human Rights, Marcia Narine Weldon, Securities Regulation | Permalink | Comments (0)

Tuesday, March 21, 2017

Abolishing Veil Piercing Is for Legislatures, Not Courts

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.

March 21, 2017 in Corporate Personality, Corporations, Joshua P. Fershee, LLCs | Permalink | Comments (0)

Monday, March 20, 2017

What I Did On My Spring Break

Ringling1

No.  This is not a travelogue.  Rather, it's a brief additional bit of background on a case that business associations law professors tend to enjoy teaching (or at least this one does).

In Ringling Bros. Inc. v. Ringling, 29 Del. Ch. 610 (Del. Ch. 1947), the Delaware Chancery Court addresses the validity of a voting agreement between two Ringling family members, Edith Conway Ringling (the plaintiff) and Aubrey B. Ringling Haley (the defendant).  The fact statement in the court's opinion notes that John Ringling North is the third shareholder of the Ringling Brothers corporation.

I spent two days in Sarasota Florida at the end of Spring Break last week.  While there, I spent a few hours at The Ringling Circus Museum.  It was fascinating for many reasons.  But today I will focus on just one.  I noted this summary in one of the exhibits, that seems to directly relate to the Ringling case:

Ringling2

Interestingly, 1938 is the year in which the plaintiff and defendant in the Ringling case created their original voting trust (having earlier entered into a joint action agreement in 1934).  The agreement at issue was entered into in 1941.  Could it be that, perhaps, the two women entered into this arrangement as a reaction to John Ringling North's desire to acquire--or successful acquisition of--management control of the firm?  I want to do some more digging here, if I can.  But I admit that the related history raised some new questions in my mind.  John Ringling North was all but forgotten in my memory and teaching of the case, until the other day . . . .  The case takes on new interest in my mind (more broadly as a close corporation case) because of my museum visit and discovery. 

[Postscript - March 21, 2017:  Since posting this, I have been blessed by wonderful, helpful email messages offering general support, PowerPoint slides (thanks, Frank Snyder), a video link (thanks, Frances Fendler), and referrals to/copies of Mark Ramseyer's article on the Ringling case, Ringling Bros.-Barnum & Bailey Combined Shows v. Ringling: Bad Appointments and Empty-Core Cycling at the Circus, which offers all the detail I could want (thanks, again, Frances, and thanks, Jim Hayes) to help fill in the gaps--while still creating a bit of mystery . . . .  I am a much better informed instructor as a result of all this!  Many thanks to all who wrote.]

March 20, 2017 in Business Associations, Corporate Governance, Corporations, Joan Heminway, Shareholders, Teaching | Permalink | Comments (0)

Friday, March 17, 2017

Q&A with the Managing Editor of the Peer-Reviewed Atlantic Law Journal

Professor Keith Diener of Stockton University School of Business, who is a former law school classmate of mine and the current managing editor of the Atlantic Law Journal, agreed to answer some questions related to the journal.  

The flagship journals for the Academy of Legal Studies in Business ("ALSB") are the American Business Law Journal (ABLJ) and the Journal of Legal Studies Education (JLSE, primarily pedagogy articles and teaching cases). In addition to these two journals, each regional association is generally responsibly for at least one journal with the Atlantic Law Journal coming out of the Mid-Atlantic region.

As Keith explains below, these journals are open to a wide range of scholars, including professors from law schools. I would encourage legal scholars who have not published in a traditional peer reviewed journal to consider submitting to one of the ALSB journals. I have published in both the ABLJ and the JLSE, and I have had good experiences in both cases.

---------- 

Please provide us a brief overview of the Atlantic Law Journal and the MAALSB.

The Mid-Atlantic Academy for Legal Studies in Business (MAALSB) is an association of teachers and scholars primarily in the fields of business law, legal environment, and law-related courses outside of professional law schools with members from the Mid-Atlantic states, including Delaware, Maryland, Pennsylvania, Virginia & West Virginia.  Residence in those states is not required for membership in the MAALSB, and many of our members come from different regions and states. In addition to sponsoring the Atlantic Law Journal, MAALSB holds an annual conference for our region usually in April of each year, where our members meet, present papers, and exchange ideas. The MAALSB is one of the regional branches of the national Academy of Legal Studies in Business (ALSB).

For over a decade, the Atlantic Law Journal was tied to the MAALSB annual conference. Presentation at the conference provided an opportunity for publication in the journal. A few years ago, the journal restructured and began accepting articles on a rolling basis, year-round. We welcome submissions from law professors, whether in law schools or not, but generally do not accept student-authored articles. We are soon entering our twentieth year as a viable legal publication.

What is your current role with the journal and what roles do other faculty members play?

The Atlantic Law Journal has a dedicated team of editors who, depending on classification, perform different roles within the journal.

Our Editor-and-Chief, Professor Cynthia Gentile, leads the journal, manages its website, publishes the annual volume, manages its listings in Cabell’s and Washington and Lee’s Journal Rankings, and coordinates indexing and archiving on Westlaw. As Editor-and-Chief, Professor Gentile is primarily responsible for journal outreach, growth, and sustainability.

I currently serve the journal as the Managing Editor. In this capacity, I receive all submissions to the journal, sanitize them for double, blind peer review, send the sanitized articles to our staff editors for review, receive their recommendation and feedback forms, and notify authors of publication decisions.

We currently have two Articles Editors, Professors Laura Dove and Evan Peterson, who work with the accepted authors to prepare their manuscripts for publication, by editing the articles and making suggestions for improvement even after acceptance.

We also have a team of roughly 30-40 professors from around the country who serve the journal as Staff Editors. Without our Staff Editors, our journal would not function. They are responsible for peer-reviewing the submitted articles, and making recommendations for (i) acceptance, (ii) conditional acceptance, (iii) revision and resubmission, or (iv) rejection of the submitted articles.

What details can you provide about the submission process, including contact information, desired word-count range, typical article topics, etc.?

We generally publish annually, usually in July or August. September through January are typically the best months to submit if you are seeking to be published in the following summer. Spring semester submissions are also welcome, but are often more competitive. Although there are no per se word ranges, article lengths typically span 7,500 to 15,000 words. We publish a wide range of articles, but to be published in the Atlantic Law Journal, the article must have a nexus to business law theory or pedagogy, broadly construed.

The acceptance rate remains at or below 25%. This means that for every article we accept, at least three are initially turned down (although some are given the opportunity to resubmit).

You can submit by emailing the Managing Editor a complete copy and a blind copy, with Bluebook formatted footnotes, in accordance with the instructions and contact information found on our website.

What details can you provide about the review process and editing process?

Upon submission, you will receive a response, typically within a few days, confirming receipt of your article. From there, soon after, the article is typically sent to Staff Editors for peer review.   To the extent possible, we match article content with the expertise of our Staff Editors to ensure a fair and professional review. We also find that the feedback provided by Staff Editors to authors is most helpful when they have expertise related to the article.   Once appropriate and available Staff Editors are identified, they then review the article and return their recommendations to the Managing Editor. The Managing Editor then notifies the author of the publication decision. If an article is accepted, then the author is introduced to one of our Articles Editors for finalization of the essay.

We strive to inform authors of publication decisions within eight (8) weeks of submission.

In your opinion, what are the advantages and disadvantages of publishing with the Atlantic Law Journal?

In my opinion, there are many advantages to publishing with the Atlantic Law Journal.

The first advantage is that (unlike many law reviews today), if you submit to the Atlantic Law Journal, someone will respond to you when you submit it. Yet, not only will you receive a response, but you will also have your article read and reviewed by professional academics in the field of business law (who are also lawyers). We do not utilize law students in our publication process, and all our editors are professional academics.

Second, the Atlantic Law Journal is listed in Cabell’s, ranked by Washington and Lee, and available on Westlaw. This means that articles appear not only in our volumes linked on our website, but are also indexed, searchable, and fully archived on Westlaw. This produces the potential for a broad impact and increased author visibility.

Third, while there appears to be a trend towards some law reviews accepting shorter articles, the Atlantic Law Journal already accepts shorter pieces (circa 7500 words). Let’s face it, sometimes there’s just not 50,000 words to say about certain topics. If you have a shorter piece that might not be long enough for a law review, the Atlantic Law Journal may be interested in it.

Fourth, unlike many law reviews, the Atlantic Law Journal is interested in articles, not only as to theoretical and scholastic topics, but also topics related to business law pedagogy. If you’ve tried something new in the classroom, had good results, and desire to share it with others, the Atlantic Law Journal may be interested. Our primary readership includes business law professors, who are always looking for new and innovative pedagogical techniques. We also welcome scholarly and theoretical articles, and try to include a mix of both scholarly and pedagogical articles in each edition.

Finally, all articles are double, blind peer reviewed. If your article is not accepted, we endeavor to provide high quality feedback that will allow you to improve your article as you continue your work on it. Our blind review is a genuine process. As Managing Editor of the journal, I am committed to ensuring the journal’s integrity by sanitizing all submissions (removing all meta-data) prior to sending the articles for review.

For more on the MAALSB and the Atlantic Law Journal, see our website.

  • Dr. Keith William Diener

                                                                                                                               

March 17, 2017 in Business Associations, Business School, Corporations, Haskell Murray, Research/Scholarhip, Writing | Permalink | Comments (1)