Saturday, May 28, 2016

Delaware Bill Proposes Appraisal Right Restrictions

A former law student of mine who practices in Delaware just alerted me to this Delaware Online article

The article describes the proposed bill as follows:

House Bill 371 would restrict the number of corporate shareholders who can petition the court for a stock appraisal to only those who own $1 million or more of a company's stock or 1 percent of the outstanding shares, depending on which is less. Currently, any shareholder can ask the court to appraise their shares. Those motions are typically filed when a company is the target of an all-cash acquisition and the shareholder wants to ensure the buyer is paying a fair price for the stock. (emphasis added)

Corporate governance expert Charles Elson is quoted as saying:

. . . he understands the argument on both sides. "Anytime you attempt to restrict the rights of a smaller shareholder, it is going to be controversial whether or not the approach is warranted"

The article cites co-authored work by my Nashville neighbor, Randall Thomas (Vanderbilt Law):

A study published earlier this month by four noted corporate law professors, including Wei Jang of Columbia Business School and Randall S. Thomas of Vanderbilt Law School, found that hedge funds have accounted for nearly 75 percent of the amount awarded in all appraisal actions over the last few years. The study also found that 32 percent of the cases involved stakes below $1 million or 1 percent of a company's stock.

Go read the entire article. 

May 28, 2016 in Business Associations, Corporate Governance, Corporations, Delaware, Haskell Murray, Lawyering, Litigation | Permalink | Comments (1)

Monday, May 23, 2016

Benefit Corporation M&A - The (In)Sufficiency of Financial Fairness

Well, given that I just spent several hours constructing a somewhat lengthy post that I apparently lost (aargh!), I will keep this relatively short.

This summer, I am working on a benefit corporation project for the Annual Adolf A. Berle Symposium on Corporation, Law and Society (Berle VIII) to be held in Seattle next month.  In that connection, I have been thinking about litigation risk in public benefit corporations, which has led me to consider the specific litigation risks incident to mergers and acquisitions ("M&A").  I find myself wondering whether anyone has yet done a benefit corporation M&A transaction and, if so, whether a checklist might have been created for the transaction that I could look at.  I am especially interested in understanding the board decision-making aspects of a benefit corporation M&A transaction. (Haskell, maybe you know of something on this . . . ?)

Preliminarily, I note that fairness opinions should not carry as much weight in the benefit corporation M&A approval context, since they only speak about fairness "from a financial point of view." Benefit corporation boards of directors must consider not only the pecuniary interests of shareholders in managing the firm, but also the firm's articulated public benefit or benefits (which is/are set forth in its charter).  Will legal counsel pick up the slack and render an opinion that the board's consideration of the public benefit(s) complies with law?  What diligence would be required to give that opinion?  I assume in the absence of interpretive decisional law, any opinion of that kind would have to be qualified.  I also assume that legal counsel will not readily volunteer to give this kind of opinion.

However, even in the absence of an opinion, legal counsel will have to offer advice on the matter, since the board of a benefit corporation has the legal obligation to manage the firm consistent with its public benefit(s) in any case.  Moreover, M&A agreements typically include representations (on transactional consents, approvals, and governance/legal compliance) affirming that the requisite consents and approvals for the transaction have been obtained and that the agreement and consummation of the transactions contemplated by it do not violate the firm's charter or applicable law.  Legal counsel will be responsible for counseling the client on these contractual provisions.

At first blush, the embedded issues strike me as somewhat complex and fact-dependent.  Important facts in this context include the precise language of the applicable statutory requirements, the nature of the firm's public benefit or benefits, the type of M&A transaction at issue and the structure of the transaction (including which entity survives in a merger), and the identity of the other party or parties to the transaction (especially whether, e.g., a merger partner is organized as a public benefit corporation or another form of entity).  As I continue to ponder these and related matters in the benefit corporation M&A setting, I invite your comments on any of this--or on broader aspects of litigation risk in the public benefit corporation environment. 

May 23, 2016 in Corporate Finance, Corporations, Haskell Murray, Joan Heminway, M&A, Social Enterprise | Permalink | Comments (2)

Wednesday, May 18, 2016

King & Spalding Web Seminar on Corporate Political Activity

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.

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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.            

May 18, 2016 in Business Associations, Conferences, Corporate Personality, Corporations, Current Affairs, Haskell Murray | Permalink | Comments (0)

Dear California: LLCs are Not Corporations. Or Are They?

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).)
City of Fontana v. Bani, LLC, No. E062018, 2016 WL 2864971, at *11-12 (Cal. Ct. App. May 12, 2016).

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 supposed 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.  

May 18, 2016 in Corporate Personality, Corporations, Joshua P. Fershee, LLCs, Partnership, Unincorporated Entities | Permalink | Comments (0)

Tuesday, May 10, 2016

LLCs Still Aren't Corporations, And At Least Some of Us Seem to Care

I had a plan to write on something else today, but I got a note from Keith Bishop sharing his blog post, which he was right to think I would appreciated.  In his post, Bishop discusses a California case

The LLC May Well Be The Platypus Of Business Organizations

What happens to the attorney-client privilege when a corporation dissolves?  Magistrate Judge Sallie Kim recently answered that question in Virtue Global Holdings Ltd. v. Rearden LLC, 2016 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 53076 (N.D. Cal. April 5, 2016):

When a corporation ceases to exist, “the corporate powers, rights and privileges of the corporation shall cease.” Cal. Corp. Code §1905(b). In that case, no entity holds the attorney-client privilege for Original MO2. City of Rialto, 492 F.Supp.2d at 1197 (“a dissolved corporation is not entitled to assert the attorney-client privilege”).

I am somewhat baffled by the ruling because the entity asserting the privilege in the case was not a corporation at all (Section 1905 is in the General Corporation Law).  The entity attempting to claim the privilege was, according to the information provided in the opinion, indubitably a California limited liability company.  Thus, the court should be citing the California Revised Uniform Limited Liability Company Act, not the General Corporation Law.

California, like many others states, seems to make the error relatively often.

Today, though, I will pick on the news.  A Google News search of "limited liability corporation" for the past twenty-four hours provides a few such instances.  (Note for new readers, an LLC is a "limited liability company," not corporation.) 

I'll highlight two.  According to one news outlet, the University of Illinois just extended a $2 million line of credit to an entity do research in Singapore.

To set up shop in another country, the university created a limited liability corporation, Singapore Research LLC. The LLC then established a private entity in Singapore which allows the center to compete legally for government grants.

Oops. Next, another news outlet reports:

A Nevada energy company said it wants to purchase an unfinished nuclear power plant from the Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA) and use the site in northeast Alabama to produce electricity with new technology.

Michael Dooley, managing partner of Phoenix Energy of Nevada, told the Associated Press his company wants to use the mothballed Bellefonte Nuclear Plant site as the base for a new, non-nuclear generation method.

. . . 

Phoenix Energy of Nevada describes itself as a privately-held Nevada limited liability corporation, incorporated in October 2010, Kallanish Energy learns.

This time, though, the report is right.  Phoenix Energy of Nevada, LLC (PENV) says on its web page it "is a Veteran owned closely and privately held viable early stage mid-market Nevada State Limited Liability Corporation (LLC) Small Business Company founded and incorporated in October 2010." Nope. It's an LLC.   

I know I complain about this a lot, but there is value in getting it right. Reporters should get it right, and those who own the entity really should get it right.  One of these days some court will find that an LLC didn't follow the corporate formalities required of a "limited liability corporation" and they won't even know to object.  

I concede when one writes things like "company" and "corporation" a lot, a mistake may occur from time to time, especially when the distinction is not, on its face, crucial. My concern is less that people make mistakes. It's more that they don't know they are making one.  That's where I come in.  

On the plus side, I am about halfway through grading my Business Organizations exams, and not one person has called an LLC a corporation. 

May 10, 2016 in Corporations, Joshua P. Fershee, LLCs | Permalink | Comments (1)

Save the Date - Washington & Lee Symposium Honoring Two of Business Law's Greatest Scholars

This is just to give everyone a "heads up" on a symposium being held this fall (Friday, October 21 and Saturday, October 22) to honor Lyman Johnson and David Millon.  The symposium is being sponsored by the Washington & Lee Law Review (which will publish the papers presented), and I am thrilled to be among the invited speakers.  I will have more news on the symposium and my paper for it as the date draws nearer.  But I wanted everyone to know about this event so that folks could plan accordingly if they want to attend.  I understand Lexington, Virginia is lovely in late October . . . .  Actually, it's always been lovely when I have been up there! And the honorees and contributors are a stellar group (present company notwithstanding).  I hope to see some of you there.

May 10, 2016 in Business Associations, Conferences, Corporate Governance, Corporations, Joan Heminway, Unincorporated Entities | Permalink | Comments (0)

Monday, May 9, 2016

Josephine Sandler Nelson on Volkswagen

Thought Josephine Sandler Nelson's recent Oxford Business Law Blog post on Volkswagen might be of interest to our readers. It is reposted here with permission.

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Fumigating the Criminal Bug: The Insulation of Volkswagen’s Middle Management

New headlines each day reveal wide-spread misconduct and large-scale cheating at top international companies: Volkswagen’s emissions-defeat devices installed on over eleven million cars trace back to a manager’s PowerPoint from as early as 2006. Mitsubishi admits that it has been cheating on emissions standards for the eK and Dayz model cars for the past 25 years—even after a similar scandal almost wiped out the company 15 years ago. Takata’s $70 million fine for covering up its exploding air bags in Honda, Ford, and other car brands could soon jump to $200 million if a current Department of Justice probe discovers additional infractions. The government has ordered Takata’s recall of the air bags to more than double: one out of every five cars on American roads may be affected. Now Daimler is conducting an internal investigation into potential irregularities in its exhaust compliance.

A recent case study of the 2015-16 Volkswagen (‘VW’) scandal pioneers a new way to look at these scandals by focusing on their common element: the growing insulation and entrenchment of middle management to coordinate such large-scale wrongdoing. “The Criminal Bug: Volkswagen’s Middle Management” describes how VW’s top management put pressure on the rest of the company below it to achieve results without inquiring into the methods that the agents would use to achieve those results. The willing blindness of top executives to the methods of the agents below them is conscious and calculated. Despite disclosure-based regulation’s move to strict-liability prosecutions, the record of prosecutorial failure at trial against top executives in both the U.S. and Germany demonstrates that assertions of plausible deniability succeed in protecting top executives from accountability for the pressure that they put on agents to commit wrongdoing.

Agents inside VW receive the message loud and clear that they are to cheat to achieve results. As even the chairman of the VW board has admitted about the company, “[t]here was a tolerance for breaking the rules”. And, contrary to VW’s assertion, no one believes that merely a “small group of engineers” is responsible for the misconduct. Only middle management at the company had the longevity and seniority to shepherd at least three different emissions-control defeat devices through engine re-designs over ten years, to hide those devices despite heavily documented software, and to coordinate even across corporate forms with an outside supplier of VW’s software and on-board computer.

The reason why illegal activity can be coordinated and grow at the level of middle management over all these years is rooted in the failure of the law to impose individual accountability on agents at this level of the corporation. Additional work by the same author on the way in which patterns of illegal behavior in the 2007-08 financial crisis re-occur in the 2015-16 settlements for manipulations of LIBOR, foreign currency exchange rates, and other parts of the financial markets indicates that middle management is further protected from accountability by regulators’ emphasis on disclosure-based enforcement. In addition, U.S. law has lost the ability to tie together the behavior of individuals within a corporation through conspiracy or other types of prosecutions.

Previous research has shown that the more prominent the firm is, and the higher the expectations for performance, the more likely the firm is to engage in illegal behavior. Now we understand more about the link between the calculated pressure that top executives put on their companies and the protection of middle management that supports the patterns of long-term, large-scale wrongdoing that inflict enormous damage on the public. It is not solely VW that needs to fumigate this criminal bug: the VW case study suggests that we need to re-think the insulation from individual liability for middle management in all types of corporations.

This post originally appeared on the Oxford Business Law Blog, May 5, 2016.

May 9, 2016 in Business Associations, Corporate Governance, Corporations, CSR, Current Affairs, Ethics, Haskell Murray, Management, White Collar Crime | Permalink | Comments (0)

Wednesday, May 4, 2016

Entities Should Ask About Politics and Religion: Round Two

In follow up to my post yesterday, my trusted and valued co-blogger Joan Heminway asked a good question (as usual) based one of my comments.  My response became long enough that I thought it warranted a follow-up post (and it needed formatting).  Joan commented: 

you say: "there should be no problem if, for example, Delaware corporate law did not allow a for-profit entity to exercise religion for the sole sake of religion. I think that is the case right now: that’s not a proper corporate purpose under my read of existing law." Are you implying that a corporate purpose of that kind for a for-profit corporation organized in Delaware would be unlawful? Can you explain?

My response: I am suggesting exactly that, though I concede one might need a complaining shareholder first. My read of eBay, and Chief Justice Strine’s musing on the subject, suggest that an entity that is run for purposes of religion (not shareholder wealth maximization) first and foremost, is an improper use of the Delaware corporate form. (“I simply indicate that the corporate law requires directors, as a matter of their duty of loyalty, to pursue a good faith strategy to maximize profits for the stockholders.”)  Chancellor Chandler explained in eBay:

The corporate form in which craigslist operates, however, is not an appropriate vehicle for purely philanthropic ends, at least not when there are other stockholders interested in realizing a return on their investment.

I think this definition of philanthropic easily includes religious ends (or should).

Chancellor Chandler continued:

Jim and Craig opted to form craigslist, Inc. as a for-profit Delaware corporation and voluntarily accepted millions of dollars from eBay as part of a transaction whereby eBay became a stockholder. Having chosen a for-profit corporate form, the craigslist directors are bound by the fiduciary duties and standards that accompany that form. Those standards include acting to promote the value of the corporation for the benefit of its stockholders.

I don’t see how this should play any differently if it applied to religion. Consider, for example, this possible spin:

Jane and Carrie opted to form Religion, Inc., as a for-profit Delaware corporation and voluntarily accepted millions of dollars from BigCo as part of a transaction whereby BigCo became a stockholder. Having chosen a for-profit corporate form, the Religion directors are bound by the fiduciary duties and standards that accompany that form. Those standards include acting to promote the value of the corporation for the benefit of its stockholders.

Further to the point, Chancellor Chandler added:

I cannot accept as valid . . .  a corporate policy that specifically, clearly, and admittedly seeks not to maximize the economic value of a for-profit Delaware corporation for the benefit of its stockholders—no matter whether those stockholders are individuals of modest means or a corporate titan of online commerce.

Thus, a for-profit business can be religious in nature—e.g., make religious books or products or sponsor religious seminars—but as a Delaware corporation, the purpose of the entity must be to “promote the value of the corporation for the benefit of its stockholders.”

This is the potential problem with the Hobby Lobby case as to Delaware lawThere, the companies had a lot to lose:

If they and their companies refuse to provide contraceptive coverage, they face severe economic consequences: about $475 million per year for Hobby Lobby, $33 million per year for Conestoga, and $15 million per year for Mardel. And if they drop coverage altogether, they could face penalties of roughly $26 million for Hobby Lobby, $1.8 million for Conestoga, and $800,000 for Mardel.

These losses were justified in that case as being necessary to exercise religion, and not to further a corporate purpose. Of course, they had to make that claim, because otherwise they couldn’t get the benefit of RFRA, which requires demonstrating “an honest conviction,” which could be problematic if the reason was couched in business terms, and not religious ones. 

Incidentally, I think the business judgment rule should probably protect this decision, anyway, but I don’t know that Delaware law would support that view. In fact, it shouldn't based in recent case law, and I think plainly eBay says no on that one. The Supreme Court says RFRA protects the right to pursue religious ends. It doesn't mean Delaware law does.  (Note: Hobby Lobby is not a Delaware entity, so the rules are admittedly different.) 

Thus, my fix seek to balance these competing possible outcomes. Tell shareholders your plan, and they can’t question it later, even if that plan costs the company $475 million in losses. Where the law has evolved, I don't think it's fair to suggest it was part of the bargain for all companies, thought maybe investors in Hobby Lobby did know.  But it doesn't matter.  I thought craigslist’s long-standing business plan was sufficient notice, too. Chancellor Chandler disagreed.

May 4, 2016 in Corporate Governance, Corporations, Delaware, Joshua P. Fershee, LLCs, Management, Shareholders | Permalink | Comments (10)

Shared Ownership & Corporate Incentives

Last week, Hamdi Ulukaya, founder and CEO of Chobani, announced a 10% company stock grant to all company employees.  Chobani joined the ranks of high profile stock grants including Whole Foods, Starbucks, Apple and Twitter.  Stock grants, while more common in tech industries, are a part of hybrid corporate law-employment law conversation on shared ownership.  Employee ownership in companies can occur in several different forms such as ERISA-governed benefit plans where the company stock issued or bought as a part of a retirement saving plan. Alternatively, a stock grant may be structured as a bonus plan, a standard compensation, or a vesting employee benefit eligible after threshold years and types of service.  All of these plans fall under the rubric of shared ownership.  In 2015, the National Center for Employee Benefits estimated that over 9000 companies participated in some form of shared ownership.

In a similar vein, actors in the hit (and record-breaking with 16 Tony Nominations) musical Hamilton have entered into a profit-sharing agreement with producers.  The deal is different for these actors, but the sentiment is the same in sharing profits, aligning interests, and promoting employee loyalty.

Shared ownership plans, especially the ERISA-governed ones can have specific tax and financing benefits for companies.  Creating a shared ownership plan, however is often focused on creating certain firm-specific benefits such as recruiting and retaining talent, and improving firm performance by aligning interests between employees and the company.   The recruitment and retention aspect can be especially valuable to start-up firms that struggle to compete with mature firms on salary and reputation. Empirical studies have found improved workplace performance, on average, for firms with shared capitalism plans, with positive effects observed most strongly when combined with policies such as low supervision, decision-making participation, and competitive pay.

I note these stories with particular interest for several reasons. The first is that I am routinely embarrassed by how little play I give employees in my corporation class .  I seem all too happy to ignore this very important piece of the corporate power puzzle, engine for the machine, etc., etc.  Second, I have been looking at shared ownership in the context of a recent research project, so look for more on that topic in a separate post once the project progresses.  Third, my sense is that social enterprise movement will bring with it greater demands for shared ownership as a means to address social factors such as retirement security, employee autonomy and wage inequality. Look for more of these stories in the headlines and an emphasis on it in scholarship.

-Anne Tucker

May 4, 2016 in Anne Tucker, Business Associations, Compensation, Corporations, Current Affairs, Employment Law, Shareholders | Permalink | Comments (1)

Tuesday, May 3, 2016

Call for Papers – Joint Program AALS Sections on Business Associations and Comparative Law

Submissions: manuscripts or abstracts must be submitted electronically to Professor Michelle Harner, Chair-Elect of the Section on Business Associations, at mharner@law.umaryland.edu August 24, 2016.

The AALS Section on Business Associations and the AALS Section on Comparative Law are pleased to announce a Call for Papers for a joint program to be held on January 5, 2017, at the AALS 2017 Annual Meeting in San Francisco.  The topic of the program is “Business Law in the Global Gig Economy:  Legal Theory, Doctrine, and Innovations in the Context of Startups, Scaleups, and Unicorns.”  

Startups and entrepreneurs have long played an important role in the U.S. economy.  From Henry Ford to Mark Zuckerberg, entrepreneurs have revolutionized the ways in which their customers receive products and services. As Phil Libin, CEO of Evernote, has explained, “There’s lots of bad reasons to start a company. But there’s only one good, legitimate reason, and I think you know what it is: it’s to change the world.”

That philosophy continues today as entrepreneurs disrupt markets and challenge business and legal norms. Traditional notions of the firm, fiduciary duties, contractual bargains, and optimal capital structures may not aptly fit entrepreneurial approaches. Indeed, entrepreneurs’ business models, financing needs, and operational objectives require lawyers and scholars to rethink governance, capital structures, and regulatory schemes that may limit or impede further innovation, both nationally and transnationally.  

Continue reading

May 3, 2016 in Anne Tucker, Call for Papers, Corporations | Permalink | Comments (0)

Entities Should Ask Before Exercising Citizens United and Hobby Lobby Rights

A recent Vanity Fair article discussing Citizens United is making the rounds. (I saw it on Facebook!)  The article notes:  

It had already been established, in Buckley v. Valeo (1976), that anyone has a First Amendment right to spend his or her own money advancing his or her own cause, including a candidacy for political office. Citizens United extended this right to legally created “persons” such as corporations and unions.

I have been giving some more thought to whole “personhood” discussion of late, and my thoughts have taken me back to both Hobby Lobby and Citizens United. What follows is a long blog post that pulls together my thoughts on these two cases in an admittedly not well developed way.  But it's a start (though I really should be grading).  

Continue reading

May 3, 2016 in Corporations, Joshua P. Fershee, Legislation, LLCs, Religion, Shareholders, Unincorporated Entities | Permalink | Comments (9)

Tuesday, April 19, 2016

Veil Piercing or Alter Ego Doctrine in a Criminal Suit? No Thanks.

A recent Illinois case uniquely applied the alter ego doctrine in the context of a criminal case.  See People v. Abrams, 47 N.E.3d 295, ¶¶ 57-61, 399 Ill. Dec. 790 (2015) ( slip op. PDF here ).  In my view, not quite right, either.

In the case, the defendant (Abrams) stole $1.87 million from the victim (Lev), which led to a restitution order for that amount and a twelve-year prison sentence for Abrams.  The conviction was for a Class 1 felony, for the the theft of property exceeding $500,000.  Id.¶ 23 (citing 720 Ill. Comp. Stat. Ann. 5/16-1(a(2) (West 2012)).  The statute provides, "Theft of property exceeding $500,000 and not exceeding $1,000,000 in value is a Class 1 non-probationable felony." 720 Ill. Comp. Stat. Ann. 5/16-1(b)(6.2). 

On appeal, the defendant argued the indictment was wrong in that it stated the money was stolen from Lev, when most of the money actually belonged to Lev's company, The Fred Lev Company (presumably a corporation, but that is not stated expressly).   Abrams claimed: 

the State did not prove he obtained “unauthorized control” of more than $500,000 of Lev’s property. Abrams recognizes the evidence presented at trial established that over $1.8 million was taken. Abrams contests the finding that the entire amount was taken from Lev and not The Fred Lev Company. 

Abrams, 47 N.E.3d 295 ¶ 57.  The court countered: "This is a distinction without a difference. Two separate doctrines of law guide our decision." Id. Although I think the court is probably right on the outcome, one of the rationales is wrongly explained.

The court's first assertion is as follows: 

First, the alter ego doctrine of corporate law was developed for and has been traditionally used by third persons injured due to their reliance on the existence of a distinct corporate entity. In re Rehabilitation of Centaur Insurance Co., 158 Ill. 2d 166, 173 (1994). “The doctrine fastens liability on the individual or entity that uses a corporation merely as an instrumentality to conduct that person’s or entity’s business.” Peetoom v. Swanson, 334 Ill. App. 3d 523, 527 (2002). In the context of “piercing the corporate veil,” an alter ego analysis starts with examining the factors which reveal how the corporation operates and the particular party’s relationship to that operation. A.G. Cullen Construction, Inc. v. Burnham Partners, LLC, 2015 IL App (1st) 122538, ¶ 43. Generally, did the corporation function simply as a facade for the dominant shareholder? Id. Here, without question, the corporate entity, The Fred Lev Company, served as the alter ego or business conduit of Lev, and Abrams’ own testimony confirmed it. 

Id.¶ 58. This is an overreach, as far as I am concerned, and I don't like the ease with which the court uses veil piercing without a detailed analysis. I believe that veil piercing, if it is to be used, should have some consistency, though I know that's now how it tends to work (i.e., without consistency).  Here, would the court have pierced the veil if this were a creditor bringing suit directly against Lev because his corporation couldn't satisfy a judgment? I think it would be wrong to do so on similar facts, so I think it is careless to apply the alter ego doctrine in this manner here.  

The court continues:

Second, the indictments sufficiently apprised Abrams of the charges against him. See People v. Collins, 214 Ill. 2d 206, 219-20 (2005) (any variance was neither material nor prejudicial to defendant). We do not believe that the defendant was in any way prejudiced by the indictments at issue. 

Id.¶ 59. I totally and completely buy this.  And, in addition, the court noted:

Even more convincing is that in opening statements to the jury, defense counsel told the jury that the checking accounts “were not used solely for [Lev’s and Abrams’] corporate work. They didn’t separate the corporation from their personal lives and personal expenses. *** They were using everything that went into that corporate account and writing checks on it for their own personal private, for their own person use. There was a commingling.” Additionally, defense counsel referred to “Fred Lev and Company” as being both Abrams and Lev. In closing argument, defense counsel argued that the company was “a small-time operation” with “one corporate book” that both Lev and Abrams used as “their own personal piggybank.” 

Id.¶ 60.  In the trial, it was determined that the statutory felony monetary amount threshold was met.  And the defendant admitted that he considered the funds to be Lev's and that he (the defendant) disregarded the entity.  I see no notice problem as to the defendant, and I have no concern that a jury couldn't understand whether the theft occurred in the amount claimed. I can see an argument, perhaps, that the prosecution should still get it right as to whom the money actually belonged, but it seems to me correct to say the crime was properly analyzed and assessed as to the criminal elements, so the claim is harmless error in this instance. Lev would have been the one to assert the claim for the Company, so it is hard to see how Abrams was harmed. 

I will maintain, though, that the veil piercing rationale is unnecessary and overstated. (I might be comfortable if they used the analogy to explain harmless error, but the way it was done is too much for me.)  Furthermore, as to the judgment for restitution to Lev, it is wrong. That money (or some portion of it) belongs to The Fred Lev Company.  Suppose there are creditors out there who have gone unpaid.  Or they are unpaid down the road.  At a minimum, the funds stolen from the company should go back through the company so it could be clear what funds were there and should have been available. Thus, as to the charges, I think the court probably got it right.  But as to respecting the entity (and protecting creditors now, and in the future), this could have been handled better. 

H/T Prof. Gary Rosin

April 19, 2016 in Business Associations, Corporations, Joshua P. Fershee, White Collar Crime | Permalink | Comments (1)

Friday, April 15, 2016

Krug on Mutual Fund Governance

I'm at the MALSB Conference in Chicago, but saw Anita Krug's recently posted book chapter entitled Toward Better Mutual Fund Governance. Worth reading. Abstract below.

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This chapter evaluates the implications of an emerging model of mutual fund governance for effective oversight and regulation. As in the traditional model, in which a board of directors or trustees serves as the board of multiple discrete funds managed by a single investment adviser, this alternative model similarly contemplates the creation of multiple funds, but it eschews a single investment adviser charged with managing each fund’s assets. Rather, there are numerous advisers, each managing one or a small number of funds within the group. Although the new model may portend an improvement over the traditional model in some respects, questions arise as to whether it introduces concerns of its own and whether those concerns are more or less manageable than those to which the traditional model gives rise. The chapter contends that, although the new model produces risks not associated with the traditional model, there are reasons to believe, at least preliminarily, that it is at least as effective as the traditional model.

April 15, 2016 in Business Associations, Corporate Governance, Corporations, Haskell Murray | Permalink | Comments (0)

Thursday, April 14, 2016

Can Consumer or Investor Pressure Make a Difference on Corporate Actions? The Carnival Conundrum

Today in my Business and Human Rights class I thought about Ann's recent post where she noted that socially responsible investor Calpers was rethinking its decision to divest from tobacco stocks. My class has recently been discussing the human rights impacts of mega sporting events and whether companies such as Rio Tinto (the medal makers), Omega (the time keepers), Coca Cola (sponsor), McDonalds (sponsor), FIFA (a nonprofit that runs worldwide soccer) and the International Olympic Committee (another corporation) are in any way complicit with state actions including the displacement of indigenous peoples in Brazil, the use of slavery in Qatar, human trafficking, and environmental degradation. I asked my students the tough question of whether they would stop eating McDonalds food or wearing Nike shoes because they were sponsors of these events. I required them to consider a number of factors to decide whether corporate sponsors should continue their relationships with FIFA and the IOC. I also asked whether the US should refuse to send athletes to compete in countries with significant human rights violations. 

Because we are in Miami, we also discussed the topic du jour, Carnival Cruise line's controversial decision to follow Cuban law, which prohibits certain Cuban-born citizens from traveling back to Cuba on sea vessels, while permitting them to return to the island by air. Here in Miami, this is big news with the Mayor calling it a human rights violation by Carnival, a County contractor. A class action lawsuit has been filed  seeking injunctive relief. This afternoon, Secretary of State John Kerry weighed in saying Carnival should not discriminate and calling upon Cuba to change its rules. 

So back to Ann's post. In an informal poll in which I told all students to assume they would cruise, only one of my Business and Human Rights students said they would definitely boycott Carnival because of its compliance with Cuban law. Many, who are foreign born, saw it as an issue of sovereignty of a foreign government. About 25% of my Civil Procedure students would boycott (note that more of them are of Cuban descent, but many of the non-Cuban students would also boycott). These numbers didn't surprise me because as I have written before, I think that consumers focus on convenience, price, and quality- or in this case, whether they really like the cruise itinerary rather than the ethics of the product or service. 

Tomorrow morning (Friday), I will be speaking on a panel with Jennifer Diaz of Diaz Trade Law, two members of the US government, and Cortney Morgan of Husch Blackwell discussing Cuba at the ABA International Law Section Spring Meeting in New York. If you're at the meeting and you read this before 9 am, pass by our session because I will be polling our audience members too. And stay tuned to the Cuba issue. I'm not sure that the Carnival case will disprove my thesis about the ineffectiveness of consumer pressure because if the Secretary of State has weighed in and the Communist Party of Cuba is already meeting next week, it's possible that change could happen that gets Carnival off the hook and the consumer clamor may have just been background noise. In the meantime, Carnival declared a 17% dividend hike earlier today and its stock was only down 11 cents in the midst of this public relations imbroglio. Notably, after hours, the stock was trading up.

April 14, 2016 in Ann Lipton, Conferences, Corporate Governance, Corporations, CSR, Current Affairs, Ethics, Financial Markets, Human Rights, International Law, Law School, Marcia Narine, Teaching | Permalink | Comments (0)

Wednesday, April 13, 2016

SEC Concept Release on Financial Disclosures in form S-K: Risk, Reporting Frequency and Sustainability

Today (April 13, 2016), the SEC made public a much anticipated concept release regarding financial disclosures in form S-K.  The release seeks public comment on "modernizing certain business and financial disclosure requirements in Regulation S-K."  The comment period is open for the next 90 days. 

The release is 341 pages, so needless to say, I haven't gotten through the document. In it's entirety at least.  By my initial count there are over 35 substantive issues in the release and many more technical/procedures ones. I've highlighted 3 issues that are relevant to prior BLPB discussions:  Risk, Reporting Frequency and Sustainability.

Risk management and risk reporting in item 503(c) and 305 are addressed starting on page 146.

"[W]e consider whether requiring additional disclosure of management’s approach to risk and risk management and consolidating risk-related disclosure would, on balance, be beneficial to investors and registrants. We also seek to better understand how our disclosure requirements could be updated to enhance investors’ ability to evaluate a registrant’s risk exposures. We are especially interested in feedback on how we can improve the content and readability of the risk factors included in a filing as well as the potential advantages and disadvantages of different approaches to risk-related disclosure."

Reporting frequency as a component of the investor time horizons (aka short/long term investment) are discussed on page 280.  The Commission questioned the frequency of financial reporting noting the adoption of semi-annual reporting in 1955 and quarterly reporting in 1970. Summarizing the current debate on quarterly reporting, the Commission states:

"The value of quarterly financial reporting has been the subject of debate. Opponents of quarterly reporting argue that frequent financial reporting may lead management to focus on short-term results to meet or beat earnings targets rather than on long-term strategies. Consequently, some have argued that quarterly reports should be discontinued or made voluntary in the United States.

Continue reading

April 13, 2016 in Anne Tucker, Corporate Governance, Corporations, Securities Regulation, Shareholders | Permalink | Comments (3)

Tuesday, April 12, 2016

Business Judgment Rule Protected?

Short post today:  I spent Business Organizations today whining that Benefit Corporations dilute the business judgment rule for regular corporations.  I do this, in part, because I hate it, but I also do it because students can see (I think) how the concept of the business judgment rule works in practice. 

I left class to find that Coca-Cola is providing paid leave for new fathers, not just new mothers.  I fully support this, and think it is both wise and moral.  The report notes: 

Coke said one motivation is to help it recruit and retain millennials.

This makes total sense to me. And I think it good business.  But I still hope the reason to say this is that it is (in the Board's judgment) good business, and not because the board thinks they otherwise need to justify such a decision. 

April 12, 2016 in Corporations, Joshua P. Fershee, Law and Economics | Permalink | Comments (4)

Wednesday, April 6, 2016

A CEO Goes to Jail- Is This the Start of A Trend?

Five years ago I blogged about Massey Energy, one of most tragic mining disasters in US history. Just a few minutes ago its CEO Donald Blankenship was sentenced to the maximum one year in prison. The prison term is unusual for a corporate executive, but should it be?

The Department of Justice under Eric Holder came under fire for prosecuting thousands of low level mortgage brokers and analysts but no C-Suite individuals after the financial crisis. Perhaps in response to that, the DOJ released the Yates Memo, which I blogged about in September. There are already some interesting takeaways on the Memo, which you can read about here or you can hear about when I present if you attend the International Legal Ethics Conference in New York in July.  

I'm not sure whether the Yates memo will prevent corporate crime or get the "right" people to go to jail. Actually, I am pretty sure that it won't. According to news reports, the Massey CEO was unusually involved in daily operations, which made convicting him easier (that along with hours of taped conversations). I do believe that the Yates Memo (if it's even constitutional) will fundamentally change the relationship between attorneys, compliance officers, and their internal clients. I will blog more about that in coming months. In the meantime, I hope that today's sentencing provides some measure of comfort to the families of the fallen miners.

April 6, 2016 in Compliance, Corporate Governance, Corporations, CSR, Current Affairs, Ethics, Marcia Narine | Permalink | Comments (0)

Wednesday, March 30, 2016

Fed Financial Stability Conference Call for Papers

2016 Financial Stability Conference - Innovation, Market Structure, and Financial Stability

CALL FOR PAPERS
2016 Financial Stability Conference

“Innovation, Market Structure, and Financial Stability”

The Federal Reserve Bank of Cleveland and the Office of Financial Research invite the submission of research and policy-oriented papers for the 2016 Financial Stability Conference to be held December 1-2, 2016, in Washington, D.C. The objectives of this conference are to highlight research and advance the dialogue on financial market dynamics that affect financial stability, and to disseminate recent advances in systemic risk measurement and forecasting tools that assist in macroprudential policy development and implementation.

PAPER SUBMISSION PROCEDURE

The deadline for submissions is July 31, 2016. Please send completed papers to:financial.stability.conference@clev.frb.org Notification of acceptance will be provided by September 30, 2016. Travel and accommodation expenses will be covered for one presenter for each accepted paper.

A pdf version of this call for papers is available here

 

 

March 30, 2016 in Anne Tucker, Call for Papers, Conferences, Corporations, Financial Markets | Permalink | Comments (0)

Friday, March 25, 2016

Will a Change in Executive Compensation Lead to Safer Food? A Chipotle Shareholder Thinks So

I feel badly for Chipotle. When I have taught Business Associations, I have used the chain’s Form 10-K to explain some basic governance and securities law principles. The students can relate to Chipotle and Shake Shack (another example I use) and they therefore remain engaged as we go through the filings. Chipotle has recently been embroiled in a public relations nightmare after a spate of food poisonings occurred last fall and winter, a risk it pointed out in its February 2015 10-K filings. The stock price has fluctuated from $750 a share in October to as low as $400 in January and then back to the mid $500 range. After some disappointing earnings news the stock is now trading at around $471.

Clean Yield Group, concerned that the company will focus only on bringing its stock back to “pre-crisis levels,” filed a shareholder proposal March 17th asking the company to link executive compensation with sustainability efforts. The proposal claims that the CEO was overpaid by $40 million in 2014 and states in part:

A number of studies demonstrate a firm link between superior corporate sustainability performance and financial outperformance relative to peers. Firms with superior sustainability performance were more likely to tie top executive incentives to sustainability metrics.

Leading companies are increasingly taking up this practice. A 2013 study conducted by the Investor Responsibility Research Institute and the Sustainable Investments Institute found that 43.4% of the S&P 500 had linked executive pay to environmental, social and/or ethical issues. These companies traverse industry sectors and include Pepsi, Alcoa, Walmart, Unilever, National Grid, Intel and many others…

Investor groups focusing on sustainable governance such as Ceres, the UN Global Compact, and the UN Principles for Responsible Investment (which represents investors with a collective $59 trillion AUM) have endorsed the establishment of linkages between executive compensation and sustainability performance.

Even with the adjustments to executive pay incentives announced this week in reaction to Chipotle’s ongoing food-borne illness crisis, Chipotle shareholders have consistently approved excessively large pay packages to our company’s co-chief executives that dangerously elide accountability for sustainability-related risks. This proposal provides the opportunity to rectify this situation.

If shareholders approve the compensation package on our company’s 2016 proxy ballot, by year-end, Mr. Ells and Mr. Moran will have pocketed nearly $211 million for their services since 2011. Shareholders have not insisted upon direct oversight of sustainability matters as a condition of employment or compensation, and the present crisis illustrates the probable error in that thinking.

This week, the Compensation Committee of the Board announced that it would withhold 2015 bonuses for executive officers. It has also announced that executive officers’ 2016 performance bonuses will be solely tied to bringing CMG stock back, over a three-year period, to its pre-crisis level.

This is a shortsighted approach that skirts the underlying issues that may have contributed to the E. coli and norovirus outbreaks that have left hundreds of people sickened, injured sales, led to ongoing investigations by health authorities and the federal government, damaged our company’s reputation, and will likely lead to expensive litigation. For years, Chipotle has resisted calls by shareholders to implement robust and transparent management and reporting systems to handle a range of environmental, social and governance issues that present both risks to operations as well as opportunities. While no one can know for certain whether a more rigorous management approach to food safety might have averted the current crisis, moving forward, shareholders can insist upon a proactive approach to the management of sustainability issues by altering top executives’ compensation packages to incentivize it.

The last sentence of the paragraph above stuck out to me. The shareholder does not know whether more rigorous sustainability practices would have prevented the food poisonings but believes that compensation changes incentivizing more transparency is vital. I’m not sure that there is a connection between the two, although there is some evidence that requiring more disclosure on environmental, social, and governance factors can lead to companies uncovering operational issues that they may not have noticed before. Corporate people are fond of saying that “what gets measured gets treasured.” Let’s see what Chipotle’s shareholders treasure at the next annual meeting.

March 25, 2016 in Business Associations, Compensation, Compliance, Corporate Governance, Corporations, Current Affairs, Financial Markets, Marcia Narine, Securities Regulation, Shareholders | Permalink | Comments (0)

The Criminalization of Compliance

The BLPB editors have been nice enough to let me pen a quick post concerning an idea I floated way back in May. In my role as that month’s guest blogger, I offered my thoughts on how rationalizing—that very powerful, and very human, psychological process that allows us to view ourselves positively (say, as an upstanding citizen, family man, etc.), while taking actions inconsistent with that view according to society’s standards (say, by passing a stock tip to a friend, misrepresenting a company’s financials, etc.)—helps explain corporate wrongdoing. I also offered a thesis for how overcriminalization, particularly in the white collar area, might be fostering rationalizations, and thus undermining crime control efforts. In a bit of a cliffhanger (not quite Game of Thrones quality, but a cliffhanger nonetheless), I promised a final post discussing how these ideas impact corporate compliance. Well, almost a year later, I’ve finally finished an article on the topic. Let me know what you think (and also if John Snow is really dead.)

Todd Haugh, The Criminalization of Compliance, 92 Notre Dame L. Rev. (forthcoming 2016).

Corporate compliance is becoming increasingly “criminalized.” What began as a means of industry self-regulation has morphed into a multi-billion dollar effort to avoid government intervention in business, specifically criminal and quasi-criminal investigations and prosecutions. In order to avoid application of the criminal law, companies have adopted compliance programs that are motivated by and mimic that law, using the precepts of criminal legislation, enforcement, and adjudication to advance their compliance goals. This approach to compliance is inherently flawed, however—it can never be fully effective in abating corporate wrongdoing. Explaining why that is forms this Article’s main contribution. Criminalized compliance regimes are inherently ineffective because they impose unintended behavioral consequences on corporate employees. Employees subject to criminalized compliance have greater opportunities to rationalize their future unethical or illegal behavior. Rationalizations are a key component in the psychological process necessary for the commission of corporate crime—they allow offenders to square their self-perception as “good people” with the illegal behavior they are contemplating, thereby allowing the behavior to go forward. Criminalized compliance regimes fuel these rationalizations, and in turn bad corporate conduct. By importing into the corporation many of the criminal law’s delegitimatizing features, criminalized compliance creates space for rationalizations, facilitating the necessary precursors to the commission of white collar and corporate crime. The result is that many compliance programs, by mimicking the criminal law in hopes of reducing employee misconduct, are actually fostering it. This insight, which offers a new way of conceptualizing corporate compliance, explains the ineffectiveness of many compliance programs and also suggests how companies might go about fixing them.

March 25, 2016 in Corporate Governance, Corporations, Ethics, White Collar Crime | Permalink | Comments (0)