Friday, December 1, 2017

Etsy to Drop B Corp Certification

I have written about Etsy in at least three past posts: (1) Etsy becoming a certified B Corp, (2) Etsy going public, and (3) Delaware amending it's public benefit corporation laws (likely, in part, to help Etsy convert to a PBC, which Etsy would need to do to maintain its certification because it incorporated in a non-constituency statute state that does have a benefit corporation statute (Delaware)).

In May, some questioned whether Etsy would keep its social focus after a "management shakeup." In September, B Lab granted Etsy an extension on converting to a PBC. That article claims that B Lab would reset the deadline for conversion to 2019, if Etsy re-certified as a B Corp by the end of 2017 and would commit to converting to a PBC.

The 2019 date was 4 years from the 2015 Delaware PBC amendments (instead of 4 years from Etsy's first certification). One of B Lab's co-founder reportedly said that the statutory amendments were needed because the original 2013 version of the Delaware PBC law was "perfectly fine for private companies and unworkable for public companies."

Just a few days ago, however, Etsy announced that it would abandon its B Corp certification and not reincorporate as a Delaware PBC. Josh Silverman (CEO since the May shakeup) is quoted in that New York Times article as saying "Etsy’s greatest potential for impact is helping sellers — many of whom are women running small businesses — increase their sales." He sounds a lot like Milton Friedman's article The Social Responsibility of Business is to Increase its Profits. Mr. Silverman also said that Etsy "had the best of intentions, but wasn’t great at tying that [sales] to impact....Being good doesn’t cut the mustard.”

Other than the New York Times article, the press around Etsy's announcement to let its B corp certification lapse seems to be relatively light. In the short-term at least, this move probably hurts B Lab and the social enterprise community more than it hurts Etsy given how few big companies are certified. In the long-term, however, Etsy may experience significant negative consequences, as it seems that this move to drop its certification is being done in conjunction with Etsy shedding a lot of the culture that made it a beloved company.  

Update: Perhaps Etsy is bracing for competition from Amazon. (Or maybe, and this is complete speculation on my part, Etsy is trying to make itself a more attractive acquisition target for Amazon, if Amazon realizes it cannot replicate Etsy on its own. Now, it is debatable whether Etsy is more valuable with or without its B Corp certification). 

December 1, 2017 in Corporations, CSR, Current Affairs, Delaware, Haskell Murray, Social Enterprise | Permalink | Comments (3)

Tuesday, November 28, 2017

LLCs Are Still Not Corporations, And At Least One Judge (In Dissent) Knows It

A recent Pennsylvania opinion makes all sorts of mistakes with regard to a single-member limited liability company (LLC), but in dissent, at least some of the key issues are correctly framed. In an unreported opinion, the court considered whether a company (WIT Strategy) that required an individual to form an LLC as a predicate to payment was an employee eligible for unemployment compensation. WIT Strategy v. Unemployment Compensation Board of Review, 2017 WL 5661148, at *1 (Pa. Cmwlth. 2017).  The majority explained the test for whether the worker was an employee as follows:

The burden to overcome the ‘strong presumption’ that a worker is an employee rests with the employer. To prevail, an employer must prove: (i) the worker performed his job free from the employer's control and direction, and (ii) the worker, operating as an independent tradesman, professional or businessman, did or could perform the work for others, not just the employer.

Id. at *3. (quoting Quality Care Options v. Unemployment Comp. Bd. of Review, 57 A.3d 655, 659-60 (Pa. Cmwlth. 2012) (citations omitted; emphasis added)).

As to the first prong, the Unemployment Compensation Board of Review (UCBR) determined, and the court confirmed, that WIT Strategy had retained control over the claimant consistent with the type of control one exerts over an employee.  I might disagree with the assessment, but the test is correct, and the analysis reasonable, if not clearly correct.  Assessment of the second prong, though, is flawed.  

The court quotes the UCBR's conclusions:

The [UCBR] does not find that [C]laimant was operating a trade or business, customarily or otherwise. The only reason [C]laimant formed the LLC was because WIT required it, claiming that it needed to pay [C]laimant through the LLC. WIT also claimed that doing so was a ‘common agency model’ for its kind of agency. The [UCBR] does not credit WIT's testimony. Rather, although [C]laimant did perform two projects for other entities, each for under $600 [.00], there is no evidence that [C]laimant solicited business through her LLC since its inception in 2013 through her termination in 2015. [C]laimant worked for WIT 40 hours per week and did not have employees of the LLC to solicit business for her. Further, although WIT claimed that all its team members were required to have additional clients through their LLCs to share with it, WIT did not prove that [C]laimant had such clients. As [C]laimant did not operate a trade or business, but rather the LLC was formed as a type of shell corporation, the fact that [C]laimant was the single-member owner is not dispositive. [C]laimant was not customarily engaged in a trade, occupation, profession or business.

Id. at *4 (emphasis and modification in original).
 
Enter President Judge Mary Hannah Leavitt.  In dissent, Judge Leavitt writes what should be the majority opinion.  First, she notes that "quality control" is not the same thing as control by an employer.  I think her analysis of the control prong is the better one, but again, reasonable minds can assess these facts differently. As the second prong, Judge Leavitt also quote the UCBR, then proceeds to assess it correctly. She explains: 
The legal form by which Claimant provided public relations and communications services to WIT-provided clients and to her own clients is irrelevant. A sole proprietor may establish a single-member LLC for many reasons, the obvious being a desire to limit individual liability. It is not known what the Board meant by a “shell corporation,” and there is no evidence on this point. A limited liability company is not even a corporation. The Pennsylvania Associations Code provides as follows:
One or more persons may act as organizers to form a limited liability company ....
15 Pa. C.S. § 8821. A single-member LLC, such as Jilletante Creative, is a perfectly lawful and valid alternative to a sole proprietorship.
Claimant continued to operate as an LLC even after her separation from WIT. The record includes Claimant's two-page detailed proposal to a potential client on “Jilletante Creative, LLC” letterhead, signed as “Jilletante Creative, LLC; By: Jillian Ivey, sole member.” R.R. 10a-11a. Jilletante Creative is not a sham or “shell” corporation, and characterizing it as such is a red herring in the analysis of whether Claimant worked for WIT clients as an employee of WIT or as an independent contractor.
Id. at *12 (Leavitt, Pres. J, dissenting). Yes!   "It is not known what the Board meant by a 'shell corporation,' and there is no evidence on this point. A limited liability company is not even a corporation." This is exactly right. Further, there is nothing wrong with an LLC serving one client. Whether its because it is a requirements contract (e.g., I will do as much work for you as you require) or simply that the LLC's owner is comfortable with the revenue coming from a single client, having only one client does not make you an employee.  
 
As a side note, as someone who has worked both for a law firm and a public relations agency, it is not at all uncommon for people in each profession to work as independent contractors.  A lawyer can be a solo and work for one client, or that lawyer can be hired an brought into the firm or in-house.  Same with PR professionals.  They may work as employees, but it is not uncommon to work as an independent contractor, in part to maintain the flexibility of work location, hours, and manner in which the work is completed.  
 
In the unemployment compensation context, what constitutes an employee can often be different than what one might deem an employee in the agency context. And that's okay. Sometimes we craft different definitions for different purposes or policy goals.  But disregarding an entity as a "shell" merely because there is only one member is wrong because the law says it is wrong.  If a state wants to outlaw single-member entities, they can (they'd be wrong to do so, but that's a different discussion).  But as long as the law allows it, the courts should respect it.  
 
Furthermore, when a person creates an LLC, they are actively engaging in the process of defining their relationship with others. I can come up with scenarios where maybe the existence of an LLC should be disregarded in the employment analysis, but more often than not the use of an LLC in the relationship should be compelling evidence of the type of relationship the parties have.  
 
Although this opinion still gets it wrong, there is hope. The dissent has set forth a proper path, and I can only hope others will follow. 
 
 

November 28, 2017 in Case Law, Corporations, Employment Law, Joshua P. Fershee, LLCs | Permalink | Comments (3)

Tuesday, November 14, 2017

No Need to Veil Pierce an LLC When Direct Liability Is Available (and LLCs Are Still Not Corps)

A new Maryland case deals with claims against a limited liability company that the plaintiff claimed was "registered as a limited liability corporation ('LLC')." Farm Fresh Direct Direct By a Cut Above LLC v. Downey, 2017 WL 4865481, at *2 (D. Md., 2017).  The court repeats the mistake, but the complaint is the original source, as it incorrectly identifies the LLC as a "corporation" and not a company.  The court then explains some of the allegations as follows: 
Plaintiff alleges that Sinsky violated 15 U.S.C. § 1125(a)(1)(A) and engaged in unfair and deceptive trade practices, in violation of Maryland common law. ECF 1, ¶¶ 17-22, 23-26. At its core, plaintiff's contention is that “Sinsky is the resident agent and incorporator” of Farm Fresh Home (ECF 1, ¶¶ 12-13), and in that capacity she “filed” the articles of organization for Farm Fresh Home, creating a name for the “competing company” that is “intentionally confusing” because of its similarity to Farm Fresh Direct. ECF 1, ¶ 12.
. . . .
*4 Farm Fresh Home is a limited liability company. As a threshold matter, I must determine whether Sinsky is subject to suit in light of Farm Fresh Home's status as a limited liability company.
Id. at *3–4. 
 
That is not quite right. The complaint alleges that Sinsky, by helping to form the LLC, violated the Lanham Act and Maryland common law (the court repeats the complaint's "incorporator" language, but presumably this is meant to refer to the formation of the LLC).  The question, at least initially, should not be whether Sinksy is subject to suit as a member of the LLC.  The question, then, is whether there is a direct claim against Sinsky for creating the competing entity.
 
The court seems to understand this is at least part of the analysis because the opinion discusses veil piercing (in the corporate context, of course) as well as the concept of direct liability.  As to direct liability, the opinion correctly explained: “An LLC member is liable for torts he or she personally commits, inspires, or participates in because he or she personally committed a wrong, not ‘solely’ because he or she is a member of the LLC.” Id. at *5 (quoting Allen v. Dackman, 413 Md. 132, 158, 991 A.2d 1216, 1228 (2010)). The opinion further states that there can be direct liability under the Lanham Act and for unfair trade practices, even when an entity is involved.  This is (at least conceptually) correct.  Despite this, the opinion ultimately misses the mark: 
The question here is not whether plaintiff will ultimately prevail. Its allegations as to Sinsky border on thin. But, for purposes of the Motion, plaintiff adequately alleges sufficient facts and inferences that Sinsky participated in the creation of Farm Fresh Home for the purpose of using a confusingly similar name to compete with Farm Fresh Direct. See A Society Without a Name, 655 F.3d at 346. Therefore, plaintiff is not entitled to the protection of the corporate shield at this juncture.
Id. at *7 (emphasis added). No and no. First, LLCs do not have corporate shields. They have LLC or limited liability shields, but You Can’t Pierce the Corporate Veil of an LLC Because It Doesn't Have One!  Second, there is no need to consider veil piercing at this point. The court has found sufficient claims as to Sinsky's participation to support direct liability. The inquiry should end there. And even if there were value in discussing both direct liability and veil piercing (there is not), the court's own citation to Allen v. Dackman should indicate that this section is not solely related to entity-derived liability.  
 
I don't mean to be too hard on anyone here.  This is not personal -- it simply about identifying and trying to correct errors related to entity status. I know that not all courts or practicing attorneys spend the amount of time I do with entities and their nuances.  And this case involves a pro se party, which can make things even more challenging.
 
I just still maintain that this is something we can correct. Apparently, one blog post at a time. 

November 14, 2017 in Accounting, Corporate Personality, Corporations, Intellectual Property, Joshua P. Fershee, Litigation, LLCs | Permalink | Comments (5)

Sunday, November 12, 2017

Call for Papers/Participants: The Role of Corporate Personhood in Masterpiece Cakeshop

I am putting together a panel or discussion group (depending on how many folks respond positively) for the SEALS conference for next summer, which is scheduled to be held August 5-11, 2018, at the Marriott Harbor Beach Resort & Spa in Fort Lauderdale, Florida (details here).

Here is the proposed title and a brief draft description (which may have to be shortened for the submission):

The Role of Corporate Personhood in Masterpiece Cakeshop

The United States Supreme Court is scheduled to hear arguments in the case of Masterpiece Cakeshop, Ltd. v. Colorado Civil Rights Commission on Dec. 5, 2017 (SCOTUSblog summary here). The issue presented in that case is: “Whether applying Colorado's public accommodations law to compel the petitioner to create expression that violates his sincerely held religious beliefs about marriage violates the free speech or free exercise clauses of the First Amendment.” A group of corporate law professors have filed an amicus brief in support to the CCRC (available here). One of the two arguments in that brief is: “Because Of The Separate Legal Personality Of Corporations And Shareholders, The Constitutional Interests Of Shareholders Should Not Be Projected Onto The Corporation.” This [panel] [discussion group] features [paper presentations] [a dialogue] on the pros and cons of this argument, together with related analysis and observations. Please note that the Supreme Court will likely have issued its opinion in the case by the time of the panel/discussion.

Please email me at spadfie@uakron.edu if you would like to participate in this program, letting me know if you are interested in presenting a paper, participating in a discussion, or both. Also, let me know if you know of anyone else who may want to participate—or just pass this on to others. I must file the proposal soon in order to ensure its consideration (the “best practices” deadline for submissions has already passed).

November 12, 2017 in Business Associations, Call for Papers, Conferences, Constitutional Law, Corporate Governance, Corporate Personality, Corporations, Current Affairs, Family Business, Stefan J. Padfield | Permalink | Comments (0)

Wednesday, November 8, 2017

Martin: Hiding in the Light: The Misuse of Disclosure to Advance a Business and Human Rights Agenda

My friend and colleague at West Virginia University, Jena Martin, has posted her new paper, Hiding in the Light: The Misuse of Disclosure to Advance a Business and Human Rights Agenda. The paper is forthcoming in the Columbia Journal of Transnational Law and can be accessed at https://papers.ssrn.com/sol3/papers.cfm?abstract_id=3028826 

It's worth a read. Here's the abstract:

In June 2017, Waitrose, a top UK supermarket, pulled its cans of corned beef off the shelves after an investigation revealed that the meat might have been produced with slave labor. At the time of the recall, Waitrose was in compliance with the UK Modern Slavery Act (MSA), a 2015 law enacted to prevent human trafficking and modern-day slavery. Under the MSA, corporations are required to file annual reports disclosing what action they had taken to eradicate slavery and human trafficking in their supply chains. The Modern Slavery Act, in turn, was a much-lauded law that is part of the growing trend of States to move the international business and human rights agenda forward. A key component of that agenda involves disseminating the UN’s Protect, Respect and Remedy Framework and implementing the UN Guiding Principles, which have been praised by States around the world as a framing mechanism for issues of corporate accountability for negative human rights impacts in a corporation’s operations and relationships with its suppliers.

The aim of this article is to analyze whether the business and human rights agenda (as embodied by the Three Pillar Framework and UN Guiding Principles) is well served with national laws that focus on disclosure. The article will focus primarily on rules being implemented in the United States at both the subnational and national level, however, it will also discuss approaches being used in European jurisdictions such as the United Kingdom and France and the overall trend towards a transparency model for human rights protection from business activities. The increased use of disclosure-based regulation (and the resulting compliance efforts by corporations) seems to come, at least in part, as a result of the efforts by States to address the duties laid out for them in the UN Guiding Principles. As such, it seems appropriate to undertake an analysis regarding whether these laws are in fact effective at implementing the Guiding Principles.

For decades now, disclosure has been held out as the ultimate curative for every corporate woe. The expansion of disclosure initiatives from mere investment-related issues to increasingly social policy issues would indicate that this trend will continue. Yet as this article demonstrates, disclosure to right now is at best a temporary stop gap measure that can lead to limited corporate change on the issue of business and human rights. At worst, disclosure is being used by corporations as a way to obtain a reputational advantage without actually making substantive changes – by simply hiding in the light.

November 8, 2017 in Corporations, Ethics, International Business, International Law, Joshua P. Fershee | Permalink | Comments (2)

Wednesday, November 1, 2017

The Hypocritical US Vote on the Cuban Embargo and What It Means for US Businesses

Every year, the United Nations holds a symbolic but important vote on a resolution condemning the U.S. embargo against Cuba and every year the United States and Israel are the only two countries to vote against it. Last year, the United States abstained in accordance with the rapprochement that the Obama administration began in 2014. A few hours ago, the U.S. and Israel stood alone and voted once again against the UN resolution, while 192 other nations voted for it. Ambassador Haley explained that the vote demonstrated, “continued solidarity with the Cuban people and in the hope that they will one day be free to choose their own destiny.” Prior to the vote she announced to the General Assembly that "today, the crime is the Cuban government's continued repression of its people and failure to meet even the minimum requirements of a free and just society… The United States does not fear isolation in this chamber or anywhere else. Our principles are not up for a vote … We will stand for respect for human rights and fundamental freedoms that the member states of this body have pledged to protect, even if we have to stand alone." The United States is indeed isolated in its thinking. Furthermore, the vote and the embargo inflame tensions with allies in Latin America that the U.S. needs for the war on terror and drug smuggling.

I feel strongly about this issue having visited the island three times in the past two years to research business and human rights issues. I’ve sat on a panel with Cuban lawyers and judges in Havana to discuss the embargo.  I’ve attended countless seminars and meetings with lawyers and businesses who want to trade with Cuba. At the American Bar Association International Law Section meeting last week there were at least 6 sessions on Cuba. The world wonders why the United States places so much attention on this tiny island nation.  

A few minutes ago, I put my finishing touches on my third law review article on Cuba (I had to wait to add in the UN vote). I argue that if and when the U.S. lifts the embargo and considers a bilateral investment treaty, it should require human rights provisions as a condition precedent for investor-state dispute resolution. I will post more about the article when it’s finally published but here’s a sneak peek of an argument relevant to today’s UN vote and the United States’ purported concern about the lack of human rights in Cuba:

[P]rior to lifting the embargo, the United States needs to examine its own record on human rights and how it treats other violators, otherwise it will have no credibility with the Cuban government. The U.S. Congress demands human rights reform in Cuba but has not been consistent in its own business dealings with other authoritarian or socialist regimes. For example, although the U.S. Department of State has criticized Cuba’s human rights record, China, another communist country with a poor human rights record, is the United States’ third largest trading partner. The United States lifted its trade embargo with Communist Vietnam twenty years ago and major U.S. companies now operate there today even though the U.S. government has leveled some of the same human rights criticism against Vietnam as it has against Cuba. The communist government of Laos did not fare much better than Cuba in human rights states department reports, but the U.S. government actively promotes potential investment opportunities there. This inconsistency in approach to human rights violators diminishes the U.S. government’s integrity in negotiating with Cuba. Tellingly, in its 2017 World Report, Human Rights Watch, a respected NGO, warned of the dangers of the Trump Administration from a human rights perspective. This hardly puts the U.S. in a strong bargaining position with Cuba when discussing the conditions on lifting the embargo.

The Trump Administration still has not released its official changes to the trade rules that it announced in June. In the meantime, although it’s hardly easy to do business in Cuba or with the Cuban government, U.S. businesses now remain in limbo until the implementing rules come into force. To be clear, I do not condone the human rights violations that the Cuban government commits against its people. In my upcoming article, I propose mechanisms to prevent foreign investors from perpetuating violations themselves. However, these same businesses that cannot do business with Cuba have no problem doing business with Russia, China, or other regimes with oppressive human rights records. Perhaps the Trump administration has not read State Department and NGO reports on those countries, but I have. Today, the hypocrisy was once again on full display for the world community to see.  

November 1, 2017 in Corporate Personality, Corporations, CSR, Current Affairs, Human Rights, International Business, Marcia Narine Weldon | Permalink | Comments (1)

Tuesday, October 31, 2017

Mistake Number Two in Mueller's Indictment: Manafort's LLCs Are Not Corporations

The distinction between limited liability companies (LLCs) and corporations is one that remains important to me. Despite their similarities, they are distinct entities and should be treated as such.

When the indictment for Paul Manafort and Richard Gates was released yesterday, I decided to take a look, in part because I read that the charges included claims that the defendants "laundered money through scores of United States and foreign corporations, partnerships, and bank accounts."  (Manafort Indictment ¶ 1.)

It did not take long for people to note an initial mistake in the indictment.  The indictment states that Yulia Tymoshenko was the president of the Ukraine prior to Viktor Yanukovych. (Id. ¶ 22.) But, Dan Abrams' Law Newz notes, "Tymoshenko has never been the president of the Ukraine. She ran in the Ukrainian presidential election against Yanukoych in 2010 and came in second. Tymoshenko ran again in 2014 and came in second then, too." Abrams continues: 

The Tymoshenko flub is a massive error of fact, but it doesn’t impinge much–if any–on the narrative contained in the indictment itself. The error doesn’t really bear upon the background facts related to Manafort’s and Gates’ alleged crimes. The error also doesn’t bear whatsoever upon the laws Manafort and Gates are accused of breaking. Rather, it’s an error which bears upon the credibility of the team now seeking to prosecute the men named in the indictment.

Perhaps. It is a high-profile mistake, but it doesn't go to the core of the charges, so I think this may overstate it a bit.  Still, it is hardly ideal, and it's definitely an unforced error.  And unfortunately, there is a second such error.  

Paragraph 12 of the indictment provides a chart of entities that were "owned or controlled" by the defendants. The chart headings provide "Entity Name," "Date Created," and "Incorporation Location." But a number of the entities are not corporations. They are LLCs,  and you do not "incorporate" an LLC.  You form an LLC.  (Also, just to be clear, LLCs are not "partnerships," either. They are LLCs.)

Similar to the Tymoshenko error, the type of entity does not appear to impact the underlying narrative or charges.  For example, entity type does not appear to impact the "conspiracy to launder money" count. And other jurisdictions, such as Cyprus, do tend to merge the corporate concept with the company concepts in a way that might make the chart headings less wrong than it is for U.S. entities.  Nonetheless, it would not have been that hard to go with "Entity Origin" or "Formation Location."  

Okay, so all of this is rather nitpicky, and I get that.  The underlying charges are serious, and I hope and expect that the charges and the surrounding facts (not these mistakes) will be the focus of the legal process as it runs its course. But, it is also proper, I think, to work toward getting the entire document right. Details matter, and at some point could mean the difference between winning and losing, even if that does not appear to be the case this time around.   

October 31, 2017 in Corporations, Current Affairs, Joshua P. Fershee, Lawyering, LLCs, Partnership, White Collar Crime | Permalink | Comments (1)

Friday, October 27, 2017

Aliens and Public Benefit Corporations

Download

A former student brought this fundraising website to my attention: To the Stars Academy of Arts and Sciences ("TTS Academy). (Image above from a Creative Commons search).

This article describes TTS Academy as follows: "Former Blink-182 singer and guitarist Tom DeLonge is taking his fascination with/conspiracy theories about UFOs to their logical conclusion point: He's partnering with former government officials on a public benefit corporation studying 'exotic technologies' from Unidentified Aerial Phenomenon (UAP) that the consortium says can 'revolutionize the human experience.'" 

Remember the Blink-182 song Aliens Exist

I couldn't make this up. And I did spend some time trying to determine if it was a joke, but TTS Academy's 63-page offering circular suggests that it is no joke. And TTS Academy appears to have already raised over $500,000

According to the organization's website, Tom DeLonge of Blink-182 fame is in fact the CEO and President. Supposedly, DeLonge has teamed with former Department of Defense official Luis Elizondo who confirmed to HuffPost that the TTS Academy is planning to "provide never before released footage from real US Government systems...not blurry, amateur photos, but real data and real videos." Rolling Stone reports that "DeLonge has long been interested in UFO and extraterrestrial research. After parting ways with Blink-182 in 2015, he delved deeper into the subject, releasing the book Sekret Machines: Gods earlier this year and he's also working on a movie that is related to those interests called Strange Times." TTS Academy is a Public Benefit Corporation, formed in Delaware. 

The TTS Academy website states: "To The Stars Academy is a Public Benefit Corporation (PBC), which means our public benefit purpose is a core founding principle of our corporate charter alongside the traditional goal of maximizing profit for shareholders." Hmm... How does one pursue a public benefit purpose and seek to maximize profit for shareholders? A main point of benefit corporations is liberate companies from the perceived restrictions of shareholder wealth maximization. 

The website continues: "Our public purpose: Education - Community - Sustainability - Transparency. PBCs have enjoyed a surge in popularity as the public becomes more interested in corporate responsibility, transparency, and more recently, the concept of impact investing.* It’s clear that an expanding portion of the general population is looking to make an impact on the world around them, not only through volunteering, or speaking out on social media, but through financial decision making.** We believe raising resources through Regulation A+ crowdfunding will allow us to expedite expansion of TTS Academy’s PBC initiatives, like promoting citizen science, enhancing traditional education with science, engineering and art-related programming, supporting veterans and their families, and promoting underrepresented people in film." Color me skeptical. 

As Professor Christine Hurt noted way back in 2014/15, the crowdfunding and social enterprise circles may overlap significantly. Professor Hurt wrote, "for-profit social entrepreneurship may find equity crowdfunding both appealing and available. For-profit social entrepreneurs may be able to use the crowdfunding vehicle to brand themselves as pro-social, attracting individual and institutional cause investors who may operate outside of traditional capital markets and may look for intangible returns. Just as charitable crowdfunders rebut the conventional wisdom that donors expect tax-deductibility, prosocial equity crowdfunders may rebut the conventional wisdom that early equity investors expect high returns or an exit mechanism." Not sure if she, or any of us, predicted exactly this type of company. 

October 27, 2017 in Business Associations, Corporations, Crowdfunding, Haskell Murray, Social Enterprise, Technology, Web/Tech | Permalink | Comments (0)

Wednesday, October 25, 2017

Getting ready for the robot lawyers

Today I sat through a panel at the ABA International Law Section Meeting entitled, I, Robot - The Increasing Use and Misuse of Technology by In-House Legal Departments. I have already posted here about Ross and other programs. I thought I would share other vendors that in-house counsel are using according to one of the panelists: 

  • Deal point - virtual deal room.
  • Casetext - legal research.
  • Disco AI; Relativity; Ringtail - apply machine learning to e-discovery.
  • Ebrevia; Kira Systems; RAVN - contract organization and analysis.
  • Julie Desk - AI "virtual assistant" for scheduling meetings.
  • Law Geex - contract review software that catches clauses that are unusual, missing, or problematic.
  • Legal Robot - start-up uses AI to translate legalese into plain English; flags anomalies; IDs potentially vague word choices.
  • LexMachina - litigation analytics.
  • NeotaLogic - client intake and early case assessment.
  • Robot Review - compares patent claims with past applications to predict patent eligibility.
  • Ross Intelligence - AI virtual attorney from IBM (Watson).

These and their future competitors lead to new challenges for lawyers, law professors, and bar associations. Will robots engage in the unauthorized practice of law? What are the ethical ramifications of using artificial intelligence in legal engagements? How much do you tell clients about how or what is doing their legal research? What about data security issues for this information? How do we deal with discovery disputes? Can robot lawyers mediate? Why should lawyers who bill by the hour want the efficiency of artificial intelligence and machine learning? Finally, how do we help students develop skills in “judgment” and how to advise and counsel clients in a world where more of the traditional legal tasks will be automated (and 23% of legal task already are)?  These are frightening and exciting times, but I look forward to the challenge of preparing the next generation of lawyers.

October 25, 2017 in Conferences, Corporations, Current Affairs, Ethics, Law Firms, Law School, Lawyering, Marcia Narine Weldon, Technology | Permalink | Comments (0)

Tuesday, October 24, 2017

Hawaii Courts Take Note: LLCs Are Not Corporations

A recent magistrate judge's recommendation on a motion to strike in Hawaii alerted me to a problem with the Hawaii Local Rules of Practice for the United States District Court for the District of Hawaii.  The mistake is not the judge's; it is in the rules.  The recommendation explains: 

[An] LLC must be represented by an attorney. See Local Rule 83.11 (“[b]usiness entities, including but not limited to ... limited liability corporations ... cannot appear before this court pro se and must be represented by an attorney”) . . . .


THE BANK OF NEW YORK MELLON FKA THE BANK OF NEW YORK, AS TRUSTEE FOR THE CERTIFICATE HOLDERS OF THE CWMBS INC., CHL MORTGAGE PASS-THROUGH TRUST 2006-OA5, MORTGAGE PASS THROUGH CERTIFICATES, SERIES 2006-OA5, a Delaware corporation, Plaintiffs, v. LEN C. PERRY JR.; NATHAN JON LEWIS; 3925 KAMEHAMEHA RD PRINCEVILLE, HI 96722, LLC, Defendants., No. CV 17-00297 DKW-RLP, 2017 WL 4768271, at *1 (D. Haw. Oct. 2, 2017), report and recommendation adopted sub nom. THE BANK OF NEW YORK MELLON fka THE BANK OF NEW YORK, AS TRUSTEE FOR THE CERTIFICATE HOLDERS OF CWMBS INC.; CHL MORTGAGE PASS-THROUGH TRUST 2006-OA5, MORTGAGE PASS THROUGH CERTIFICATES, SERIES 2006-OA5, a Delaware corporation, Plaintiff(s), v. LEN C. PERRY, JR.; NATHAN JON LEWIS; 3925 KAMEHAMEHA RD PRINCEVILLE, HI 96722, LLC Defendant(s)., No. CV 17-00297 DKW-RLP, 2017 WL 4767667 (D. Haw. Oct. 20, 2017).  (I know this could be cited more succinctly, but I thought this was pretty great so I went with the whole enchilada.)

The local rules, available here, state, as quoted, 

LR83.11.  Business Entities.

Business entities, including but not limited to corporations, partnerships, limited liability partnerships, limited liability corporations, and community associations, cannot appear before this court pro se and must be represented by an attorney. (emphasis added)

LLCs (limited liability companies) are still not corporations, and too often courts and local rules insist on saying they are. But help is available.  I made my first trip this summer to Hawaii with my family, and it was amazing. So I put this offer out there: if anyone in Hawaii would like some help cleaning up local rules (and other business-entity related laws, rules, and regulations) count me in.  This rule is wrong, but there is a whole lot right about Hawaii. 

October 24, 2017 in Corporations, Joshua P. Fershee, LLCs | Permalink | Comments (0)

Friday, October 20, 2017

Delaware Corporate Law Resource Center (including oral histories)

The Harvard Law School Forum on Corporate Governance and Financial Regulation recently contained a notice about the Delaware Corporate Law Resource Center, which I thought might interest our readers as well. The post is reproduced below the line.

The oral histories of iconic Delaware cases are the most interesting, and useful, part of the website to me, though some of the cases do not appear to have materials yet. In addition to the cases, there is an oral history on 102(b)(7) to which my judge (VC Stephen Lamb) and others contributed. I hope the existing materials will be added to and expanded over time.  

------------

The University of Pennsylvania Law School Institute for Law and Economics (ILE) is pleased to announce the creation and public availability of a new website devoted to resources relating to the development of the Delaware General Corporation Law and related case law. This website (the Delaware Corporation Law Resource Center) has two principal components. The first is a compilation of resources relating to the Delaware General Corporation Law itself, including a link to the text of the statute, and links to the bills to amend the statute since its general revision in 1967. This portion of the website also includes links to annual commentaries on those amendments, the reports and minutes generated in the 1967 revision process, and memoranda disseminated by the Council of the Delaware State Bar Association Corporation Law Section describing some of the more significant and controversial amendments to the statute.

The second component of the website is a repository for materials constituting oral histories of iconic corporate law decisions of the Delaware courts since 1980, dealing with the director’s fiduciary duty of care, duties in takeovers, and freezeouts by controlling stockholders. This portion of the website is a work in progress, but for some of the cases it already contains the opinions in the case, briefs, selected transcripts of oral arguments, and selected key documents from the record. Most notably, the oral history compilation includes high quality videotaped interviews of lawyers and judges involved in the case, who describe the back story of the case with details not available through review of the courts’ opinions.

The oral history portion of the website also includes the first in a series of composite videos setting forth the background of each case. That premiere video describes the background of Smith v. Van Gorkom and presents, in narrative fashion, selected excerpts from the video interviews of the participants.

ILE hopes and expects that this website, which is freely available to the public, will prove to be a valuable resource for the teaching and development of Delaware corporate law. ILE welcomes suggestions for ways in which the website can be made even more useful to those interested in its subject.

The new website is available here.

October 20, 2017 in Business Associations, Corporate Governance, Corporations, Delaware, Haskell Murray, Law School, Web/Tech | Permalink | Comments (0)

Tuesday, October 17, 2017

Guest Post: Zohar Goshen and Richard Squire’s “Principal Costs: A New Theory for Corporate Law and Governance”

The following is a guest post from Bernard S. Sharfman*:

The foundation of my understanding of corporate governance rests on a small but growing number of essays, articles, and books.  These writings include Henry Manne’s Mergers and the Market for Corporate Control, Michael Dooley’s Two Models of Corporate Governance, Stephen Bainbridge’s Director Primacy: The Means and Ends of Corporate Governance and The Business Judgment Rule as Abstention Doctrine, Kenneth J. Arrow, The Limits of Organization, Frank H. Easterbrook & Daniel R. Fischel, The Economic Structure of Law, Zohar Goshen & Gideon Parchomovsky’s The Essential Role of Securities Regulation, and Alon Brav, Wei Jiang, Frank Partnoy & Randall Thomas’ Hedge Fund Activism, Corporate Governance, and Firm Performance.  Recently, I have added to this esteemed list Zohar Goshen and Richard Squire’s Principal Costs: A New Theory for Corporate Law and Governance.

Goshen and Squire put forth a new theory, the “principal-cost theory,” which posits that a firm’s optimal corporate governance arrangements result from a calculus that seeks to minimize total control costs, not just agency costs (“the economic losses resulting from managers’ natural incentive to advance their personal interests even when those interests conflict with the goal of maximizing their firm’s value”):

The theory states that each firm’s optimal governance structure minimizes total control costs, which are the sum of principal costs and agent costs. Principal costs occur when investors exercise control, and agent costs occur when managers exercise control. Both types of cost can be subdivided into competence costs, which arise from honest mistakes attributable to a lack of expertise, information, or talent, and conflict costs, which arise from the skewed incentives produced by the separation of ownership and control.  When investors exercise control, they make mistakes due to a lack of expertise, information, or talent, thereby generating principal competence costs. To avoid such costs, they delegate control to managers whom they expect will run the firm more competently. But delegation separates ownership from control, leading to agent conflict costs, and also to principal conflict costs to the extent that principals retain the power to hold managers accountable. Finally, managers themselves can make honest mistakes, generating agent competence costs. 

Moreover, it is important to understand that the theory is firm specific:

Principal costs and agent costs are substitutes for each other: Any reallocation of control rights between investors and managers decreases one type of cost but increases the other. The rate of substitution is firm specific, based on factors such as the firm’s business strategy, its industry, and the personal characteristics of its investors and managers. Therefore, each firm has a distinct division of control rights that minimizes total control costs. Because the cost-minimizing division varies by firm, the optimal governance structure does as well. The implication is that law’s proper role is to allow firms to select from a wide range of governance structures, rather than to mandate some structures and ban others. 

The bottom line is that “A firm that seeks to maximize total returns will weigh principal costs against agent costs when deciding how to divide control between managers and investors.”

A minimization of total control costs approach to the identification of optimal governance arrangements allows for the fundamental value of authority in large organizations to be respected and acknowledged, something which is missing in many academic works that only focus on agency costs.  According to Michael Dooley, “Where the residual claimants are not expected to run the firm and especially when they are many in number (thus increasing disparities in information and interests), their function becomes specialized to risk-bearing, thereby creating both the opportunity and necessity for managerial specialists.” According to Rose and Sharfman, “Especially where there are a large number of shareholders, it is much more efficient, in terms of maximizing shareholder value, for the Board and executive management—the corporate actors that possess overwhelming advantages in terms of information, including nonpublic information, and whose skills in the management of the company are honed by specialization in the management of this one company—to make corporate decisions rather than shareholders.”

The calculus of the principal-cost theory also allows for the potential for Bainbridge’s director primacy as a positive theory to be proven correct for any particular firm:  “As a positive theory of corporate governance, the director primacy model strongly emphasizes the role of fiat - i.e., the centralized decisionmaking authority possessed by the board of directors.” In the context of Goshen and Squire’s calculus, Bainbridge is arguing that principal costs will greatly outweigh agency costs when total control costs are minimized.  

Finally, Goshen and Squire’s theory allows for an understanding of why dual-class share structures continue to persist and why they have been successfully implemented at companies such as Alphabet (Google) and Facebook.  Their theory is critical to the argument I make in my most recent paper, A Private Ordering Defense of a Company's Right to Use Dual Class Share Structures in IPOs.  In sum, Goshen and Squire’s theory allows for a more robust understanding of what is meant by optimal corporate governance arrangements, something that an exclusive focus on agency costs does not allow.     

*This post comes to us from Bernard S. Sharfman, who is an associate fellow at the R Street Institute, a member of the Journal of Corporation Law’s editorial advisory board, a visiting professor at the University of Maryland School of Law (Spring 2018), and a former visiting assistant professor at Case Western Reserve University School of Law (Spring 2013 and 2014).

October 17, 2017 in Corporate Governance, Corporations, Joshua P. Fershee | Permalink | Comments (0)

Friday, October 13, 2017

Nonprofit v. Benefit Corporation v. Traditional For-Profit Hospitals

Earlier this week, my two-year old daughter was in the pediatric ICU with a virus that attacked her lungs. We spent two nights at The Monroe Carell Jr. Children's Hospital at Vanderbilt (“Vanderbilt Children’s). Thankfully, she was released Wednesday afternoon and is doing well. Unfortunately, many of the children on her floor had been in the hospital for weeks or months and were not afforded such a quick recovery. There cannot be many places more sad than the pediatric ICU.

Since returning home, I confirmed that Vanderbilt Children’s is a nonprofit organization, as I suspected. I do wonder whether the hospital would be operated the same if it were a benefit corporation or as a traditional corporation.

Some of the decisions made at the hospital seems like they would have been indefensible from a shareholder perspective, if the hospital had been for-profit. Vanderbilt Children’s has a captive market, with no serious competitors that I know of in the immediate area. Yet, the hospital doesn’t charge for parking. If they did, I don’t think it would impact anyone’s decision to choose them because, again, there aren’t really other options, and the care is the important part anyway. The food court was pretty reasonably priced, and they probably could have charged double without seriously impacting demand; the people at the hospital valued time with their children more than a few dollars. The hospital was beautifully decorated with art aimed at children – for example, with a big duck on the elevator ceiling, which my daughter absolutely loved. There were stars on the ceiling of the hospital rooms, cartoons on TVs in every room, etc. All of this presumably cost more than a drab room, and perhaps it was all donated, but assuming it actually cost more, I am not sure those things would result in any financial return on investment.

As we have discussed many times on this blog, even in the traditional for-profit setting, the business judgment rule likely protects the decisions of the board of directors, even if the promised ROI seems poor. But at what point – especially when the board knows there will be no return on the investment at all - is it waste? (Note: Question sparked by a discussion that Stefan Padfied, Josh Fershee, and I had in Knoxville after a session at the UTK business law conference this year). And, in any event, the Dodge and eBay cases may lead to some doubt in the way a case may play out. And even if the law is highly unlikely to enforce shareholder wealth maximization, the norm in traditional for-profit corporations may lead to directorial decisions that we find problematic as a society, especially in a hospital setting.

Now, maybe the Hippocratic Oath, community expectations, and various regulations make it so nonprofit and forprofit hospitals operate similarly. As a father of a patient, however, even as a free market inclined professor, I would prefer hospitals to be nonprofit and clearly focused on care first. Also, some forprofit hospitals are supposedly considering going the benefit corporation route, which may be a step in the right direction – at least they have an obligation to consider various stakeholders (even if, currently, the statutory enforcement mechanisms are extremely weak) and at least there are some reporting requirements (even if , currently, reporting compliance is miserable low in the states I have examined and the statutory language is painfully vague).

I am not sure I have ever been in a situation where I would have paid everything I had, and had no other good options for the immediate need, and yet I still did not feel taken advantage of by the organization. There is much more that could be said on these issues, but I do wonder whether organizational form was important here. And, if so, what is the solution? Require hospitals to be nonprofits (or at least benefit corporations, if those statutes were amended to add more teeth)?

October 13, 2017 in Business Associations, Corporate Governance, Corporations, CSR, Delaware, Ethics, Family, Haskell Murray, Social Enterprise | Permalink | Comments (7)

Wednesday, October 11, 2017

Do We Need Universal Proxies?

Earlier this week, I had the pleasure of hearing a talk about universal proxies from Scott Hirst, Research Director of Harvard’s Program on Institutional Investors.

By way of background, last Fall under the Obama Administration, the SEC proposed a requirement for universal proxies noting:

Today’s proposal recognizes that few shareholders can dedicate the time and resources necessary to attend a company’s meeting in person and that, in the modern marketplace, most voting is done by proxy.  This proposal requires a modest change to address this reality.  As proposed, each party in a contest still would bear the costs associated with filing its own proxy statement, and with conducting its own independent solicitation.  The main difference would be in the form of the proxy card attached to the proxy statement.  Subject to certain notice, filing, form, and content requirements, today’s proposal would require each side in a contest for the first time to provide a universal proxy card listing all the candidates up for election.

The Council of Institutional Investors favors their use explaining, “"Universal" proxy cards would let shareowners vote for the nominees they wish to represent them on corporate boards. This is vitally important in proxy contests, when board seats (and in some cases, board control) are at stake. Universal proxy cards would make for a fairer, less cumbersome voting process.” 

The U.S. Chamber of Commerce has historically spoken out against them, arguing:

Mandating a universal ballot, also known as a universal proxy card, at all public companies would inevitably increase the frequency and ease of proxy fights. Such a development has no clear benefit to public companies, their shareholders, or other stakeholders. The SEC has historically sought to remain neutral with respect to interactions between public companies and their investors, and has always taken great care not to implement any rule that would favor one side over the other. We do not understand why the SEC would now pursue a policy that would increase the regularity of contested elections or cause greater turnover in the boardroom.

I can't speak for the Chamber, but I imagine one big concern would be whether universal proxies would provide proxy advisors such as ISS and Glass Lewis even more power than they already have with institutional investors. When I asked Hirst about this, he did not believe that the level of influence would rise significantly.

Hirst’s paper provides an empirical study that supports his contention that reform would help mitigate some of the distortions from the current system. It’s worth a read, although he acknowledges that in the current political climate, his proposal will not likely gain much traction. The abstract is below:

Contested director elections are a central feature of the corporate landscape, and underlie shareholder activism. Shareholders vote by unilateral proxies, which prevent them from “mixing and matching” among nominees from either side. The solution is universal proxies. The Securities and Exchange Commission has proposed a universal proxy rule, which has been the subject of heated debate and conflicting claims. This paper provides the first empirical analysis of universal proxies, allowing evaluation of these claims.

The paper’s analysis shows that unilateral proxies can lead to distorted proxy contest outcomes, which disenfranchise shareholders. By removing these distortions, universal proxies would improve corporate suffrage. Empirical analysis shows that distorted proxy contests are a significant problem: 11% of proxy contests at large U.S. corporations between 2001 and 2016 can be expected to have had distorted outcomes. Contrary to the claims of most commentators, removing distortions can most often be expected to favor management nominees, by a significant margin (two-thirds of distorted contests, versus one-third for dissident nominees). A universal proxy rule is therefore unlikely to lead to more proxy contests, or to greater success by special interest groups.

Given that the arguments made against a universal proxy rule are not valid, the SEC should implement proxy regulation. A rule permitting corporations to opt-out of universal proxies would be superior to the SEC’s proposed mandatory rule. If the SEC chooses not to implement a universal proxy regulation, investors could implement universal proxies through private ordering to adopt “nominee consent policies.

October 11, 2017 in Corporate Governance, Corporate Personality, Corporations, Financial Markets, Marcia Narine Weldon, Securities Regulation, Shareholders | Permalink | Comments (0)

Friday, October 6, 2017

Stonyfield's Struggles and Successes as a Social Business

Yesterday, I listened to How I Built This' podcast on Gary Hirshberg of Stonyfield Yogurt.

I assume most readers are familiar with Stonyfield Yogurt, and perhaps a bit of its story, but I think the podcast goes far beyond what is generally known. 

The main thing that stuck out in the podcast was how many struggles Stonyfield faced. Most of the companies featured on How I Built This struggle for a few months or even a few years, but Stonyfield seemed to face more than its share of challenges for well over a decade. The yogurt seemed pretty popular early on, but production, distribution, and cash flow problems haunted them. Stonyfield also had a tough time sticking with their organic commitment, abandoning organic for a few years when they outsourced production and couldn't convince the farmers to follow their practices. With friends and family members' patient investing (including Gary's mother and mother-in-law), Stonyfield finally found financial success after raising money for its own production facility, readopting organic, and finding broader distribution.

After about 20 years, Stonyfield sold the vast majority of the company to large multinational Group Danone. Gary explained that some investors were looking for liquidity and that he felt it was time to pay them back for their commitment. Gary was able to negotiate some control rights for himself (unspecified in the podcast) and stayed on as chairman. While this sale was a big payday for investors, it is unclear how much of the original commitment to the environment and community remained. Also, the podcast did not mention that Danone announced, a few months ago, that it would sell Stonyfield

Personally, I am a fan of Stonyfield's yogurt and it will be interesting to follow their story under new ownership. I also think students and faculty members could benefit from listening to stories like this to remind us that success is rarely easy and quick. 

October 6, 2017 in Business Associations, Corporate Governance, Corporations, CSR, Current Affairs, Entrepreneurship, Haskell Murray, Shareholders, Social Enterprise | Permalink | Comments (1)

Thursday, October 5, 2017

Should Employees Have Their Day in Court? The Supreme Court and Mandatory Arbitration

On Monday, the Supreme Court heard argument on three cases[1] that could have a significant impact on an estimated 55% of employers and 25 million employees. The Court will opine on the controversial use of class action waivers and mandatory arbitration in the employment context. Specifically, the Court will decide whether mandatory arbitration violates the National Labor Relations Act or is permissible under the Federal Arbitration Act. Notably, the NLRA applies in the non-union context as well.

Monday’s argument was noteworthy for another reason—the Trump Administration reversed its position and thus supported the employers instead of the employees as the Obama Administration had done when the cases were first filed. The current administration also argued against its own NLRB’s position that these agreements are invalid.

In a decision handed down by the NLRB before the Trump Administration switched sides on the issue, the agency ruled that Dish Network’s mandatory arbitration provision violates §8(a)(1) of the NLRA because it “specifies in broad terms that it applies to ‘any claim, controversy and/or dispute between them, arising out of and/or in any way related to Employee’s application for employment, employment and/or termination of employment, whenever and wherever brought.’” The Board believed that employees would “reasonably construe” that they could not file charges with the NLRB, and this interfered with their §7 rights.

The potential impact of the Supreme Court case goes far beyond employment law, however. As the NLRB explained on Monday:

The Board's rule here is correct for three reasons. First, it relies on long-standing precedent, barring enforcement of contracts that interfere with the right of employees to act together concertedly to improve their lot as employees. Second, finding individual arbitration agreements unenforceable under the Federal Arbitrations Act savings clause because are legal under the National Labor Relations Act gives full effect to both statutes. And, third, the employer's position would require this Court, for the first time, to enforce an arbitration agreement that violates an express prohibition in another coequal federal statute. (emphasis added).

This view contradicted the employers' opening statement that:

Respondents claim that arbitration agreements providing for individual arbitration that would otherwise be enforceable under the FAA are nonetheless invalid by operation of another federal statute. This Court's cases provide a well-trod path for resolving such claims. Because of the clarity with which the FAA speaks to enforcing arbitration agreements as written, the FAA will only yield in the face of a contrary congressional command and the tie goes to arbitration. Applying those principles to Section 7 of the NLRA, the result is clear that the FAA should not yield.

My co-bloggers have written about mandatory arbitration in other contexts (e.g., Josh Fershee on derivative suits here, Ann Lipton on IPOs here, on corporate governance here, and on shareholder disputes here, and Joan Heminway promoting Steve Bradford’s work here). Although Monday’s case addresses the employment arena, many have concerns with the potential unequal playing field in arbitral settings, and I anticipate more litigation or calls for legislation.  

I wrote about arbitration in 2015, after a New York Times series let the world in on corporate America’s secret. Before that expose, most people had no idea that they couldn’t sue their mobile phone provider or a host of other companies because they had consented to arbitration. Most Americans subject to arbitration never pay attention to the provisions in their employee handbook or in the pile of paperwork they sign upon hire. They don’t realize until they want to sue that they have given up their right to litigate over wage and hour disputes or join a class action.

As a defense lawyer, I drafted and rolled out class action waivers and arbitration provisions for businesses that wanted to reduce the likelihood of potentially crippling legal fees and settlements. In most cases, the employees needed to sign as a condition of continued employment. Thus, I’m conflicted about the Court’s deliberations. I see the business rationale for mandatory arbitration of disputes especially for small businesses, but as a consumer or potential plaintiff, I know I would personally feel robbed of my day in court.

The Court waited until Justice Gorsuch was on board to avoid a 4-4 split, but he did not ask any questions during oral argument. Given the questions that were asked and the makeup of the Court, most observers predict a 5-4 decision upholding mandatory arbitrations. The transcript of the argument is here. If that happens, I know that many more employers who were on the fence will implement these provisions. If they’re smart, they will also beef up their compliance programs and internal complaint mechanisms so that employees don’t need to resort to outsiders to enforce their rights.

My colleague Teresa Verges, who runs the Investor Rights Clinic at the University of Miami, has written a thought-provoking article that assumes that arbitration is here to stay. She proposes a more fair arbitral forum for those she labels “forced participants.” The abstract is below:

Decades of Supreme Court decisions elevating the Federal Arbitration Act (FAA) have led to an explosion of mandatory arbitration in the United States. A form of dispute resolution once used primarily between merchants and businesses to resolve their disputes, arbitration has expanded to myriad sectors, such as consumer and service disputes, investor disputes, employment and civil rights disputes. This article explores this expansion to such non-traditional contexts and argues that this shift requires the arbitral forum to evolve to increase protections for forced participants and millions of potential claims that involve matters of public policy. By way of example, decades of forced arbitration of securities disputes has led to increased due process and procedural reforms, even as concerns remain about investor access, the lack of transparency and investors’ perception of fairness.

I’ll report back on the Court’s eventual ruling, but in the meantime, perhaps some policymakers should consider some of Professor Verges’ proposals. Practically speaking though, once the NLRB has its full complement of commissioners, we can expect more employer-friendly decisions in general under the Trump Administration.

 

[1] Murphy Oil USA v. N.L.R.B., 808 F.3d 1013 (5th Cir. 2015), cert. granted, 137 S. Ct. 809, 196 L. Ed. 2d 595 (2017); Lewis v. Epic Sys. Corp., 823 F.3d 1147 (7th Cir. 2016), cert. granted, 137 S. Ct. 809, 196 l. Ed. 2d. 595 (2017); Morris v. Ernst & Young, LLP, 834 F.3d 975 (9th Cir. 2016), cert. granted, 137 S. Ct. 809, 196 L. Ed. 2d 595 (2017)

October 5, 2017 in Compliance, Corporate Governance, Corporations, Current Affairs, Employment Law, Legislation, Litigation, Marcia Narine Weldon | Permalink | Comments (0)

Wednesday, October 4, 2017

Revising How to Handle Derivative Claims (or Not)

Yesterday, Professor Bainbridge posted "Is there a case for abolishing derivative litigation? He makes the case as follows: 

A radical solution would be elimination of derivative litigation. For lawyers, the idea of a wrong without a legal remedy is so counter-intuitive that it scarcely can be contemplated. Yet, derivative litigation appears to have little if any beneficial accountability effects. On the other side of the equation, derivative litigation is a high cost constraint and infringement upon the board’s authority. If making corporate law consists mainly of balancing the competing claims of accountability and authority, the balance arguably tips against derivative litigation. Note, moreover, that eliminating derivative litigation does not eliminate director accountability. Directors would remain subject to various forms of market discipline, including the important markets for corporate control and employment, proxy contests, and shareholder litigation where the challenged misconduct gives rise to a direct cause of action.

If eliminating derivative litigation seems too extreme, why not allow firms to opt out of the derivative suit process by charter amendment? Virtually all states now allow corporations to adopt charter provisions limiting director and officer liability. If corporate law consists of a set of default rules the parties generally should be free to amend, as we claim, there seems little reason not to expand the liability limitation statutes to allow corporations to opt out of derivative litigation.

I think he makes a good point.  And included in the market discipline and other measures that Bainbridge notes would remain in place to maintain director accountability, there would be the shareholder response to the market.  That is, if shareholders value derivative litigation as an option ex ante, the entity can choose to include derivative litigation at the outset or to add it later if the directors determine the lack of a derivative suit option is impacting the entity's value.  

Professor Bainbridge's post also reminded me of another option: arbitrating derivative suits.  A friend of mine made just such a proposal several years ago while we were in law school: 

There are a number of factors that make the arbitration of derivative suits desirable. First, the costs of an arbitration proceeding are usually lower than that of a judicial proceeding, due to the reduced discovery costs. By alleviating some of the concern that any D & O insurance coverage will be eaten-up by litigation costs, a corporation should have incentive to defend “frivolous” or “marginal” derivative claims more aggressively. Second, and directly related to litigation costs, attorneys' fees should be cut significantly via the use of arbitration, thus preserving a larger part of any pecuniary award that the corporation is awarded. Third, the reduced incentive of corporations to settle should discourage the initiation of “frivolous” or “marginal” derivative suits.

Andrew J. Sockol, A Natural Evolution: Compulsory Arbitration of Shareholder Derivative Suits in Publicly Traded Corporations, 77 Tul. L. Rev. 1095, 1114 (2003) (footnote omitted). 

Given the usually modest benefit of derivative suits, early settlement of meritorious suits, and the ever-present risk of strike suits, these alternatives are well worth considering.  

October 4, 2017 in ADR, Corporate Finance, Corporate Governance, Corporations, Delaware, Financial Markets, Joshua P. Fershee, Litigation, Securities Regulation | Permalink | Comments (3)

Tuesday, September 26, 2017

Courts Determined to Confuse Everyone about LLCs

The United States District Court for the Northern District of Mississippi seems to understand that LLCs are different than corporations, but they don't really want to keep them separate. See this passage, to which I have added notes: 

Regarding complete diversity, the citizenship of a limited liability corporation [no, limited liability company]  is determined by the citizenship of all its members. Tewari De-Ox Sys., Inc. v. Mtn. States/Rosen, Ltd. Liab. Corp., 757 F.3d 481, 483 (5th Cir. 2014). The “citizenship of an unincorporated [yes!] association must be traced through each layer of the association, however many there may be.” Deep Marine Tech., Inc. v. Conmaco/Rector, L.P., 515 F.Supp.2d 760, 766 (S.D. Tex. 2007). Further, “§ 1332(c)(1), which deems a corporation [wait, what?] of ‘every State and foreign state’ in which it is incorporated and the ‘State or foreign state’ where it has its principal place of business, applies to alien corporations.” Vantage Drilling Co. v. Hsin-Chi Su, 741 F.3d 535, 537 (5th Cir. 2014). The defendants submitted an upstream analysis of their organizational structure, tracing through each layer of association, to properly allege the citizenship of each member, ultimately establishing that they and Tubwell are citizens of different states.

JOE TUBWELL PLAINTIFF v. SPECIALIZED LOAN SERVICE LLC (SLS), Agents and Successors, Loan No. 1012441108; MORGAN STANLEY MORTGAGE CAPITAL HOLDINGS LLC, Agents and Successors DEFENDANTS, 3:17-CV-15-DMB-RP, 2017 WL 4228760, at *2 n.2 (N.D. Miss. Sept. 22, 2017). 
 
The court seems to have gotten to the right answer (I think), but this is hardly helping clarify anything.  It appears maybe they have left some of the key facts out. This is a time where a diagram might be helpful.  And properly identifying the entity types would definitely be.  

September 26, 2017 in Corporations, Joshua P. Fershee, LLCs | Permalink | Comments (0)

Wednesday, September 20, 2017

What keeps general counsels and compliance officers up at night? Here's what boards should be discussing

No one had a National Compliance Officer Day when I was in the job, but now it’s an official thing courtesy of SAI Global, a compliance consulting company. The mission of this one-year old holiday is to:

  • Raise awareness about the importance of ethics and compliance in business and shine a spotlight on the people responsible for making it a reality.
  • Provide resources to promote the wellness and well-being of ethics and compliance professionals so they can learn how to overcome stress and burnout.
  • Grow the existing ethics and compliance community and help identify and guide the next generation of E&C advocates.

Although some may look at this skeptically as a marketing ploy, I’m all for this made-up holiday given what compliance officers have to deal with today.

Last Saturday, I spoke at the Business Law Professor Blog Conference at the University of Tennessee about corporate governance, compliance, and social responsibility in the Trump/Pence era. During my presentation, I described the ideal audit committee meeting for a company that takes enterprise risk management seriously. My board agenda included: the impact of climate change and how voluntary and mandatory disclosures could change under the current EPA and SEC leadership; compliance budgetary changes; the rise of the whistleblower; the future of the DOJ’s Yates Memo and corporate cooperation after a recent statement by the Deputy Attorney General; SEC and DOJ enforcement priorities; data protection and cybersecurity; corporate culture and the risk of Google/Uber- type lawsuits; and sustainability initiatives and international governance disclosures. I will have a short essay in the forthcoming Transactions: The Tennessee Journal of Business Law but here are a few statistics that drove me to develop my model (and admittedly ambitious) agenda:

  • According to an ACC survey of over 1,000 chief legal officers:
    • 74% say ethics and compliance issues keep them up at night
    • 77% handled at least one internal or external compliance-related investigation in their department
    • 33% made policy changes in their organizations as a result of geopolitical events.
    • 28% were targeted by regulators in the past two years
  • Board members polled in September 2016 were most concerned about the following compliance issues:
    • Regulatory changes and scrutiny may heighten
    • Cyber threats
    • Privacy/identity and information security risks
    • Failure of corporate culture to encourage timely identification/escalation of significant risk issues
  • During the 2017 proxy season, shareholders submitted 827 proposals (down from 916 in 2016):
    • 112 related to proxy access,
    • 87 related to political contributions and lobbying,
    • 35 focused on board diversity (up from 28 in 2016),
    • 34 proposals focused on discrimination or diversity-related issues (up from 16 in 2016),
    • 69 proposals related to climate change (3 of those passed, including at ExxonMobil)
    • 19 proposals focused on the gender pay gap (up from 13 in 2016)

General counsels are increasingly taking on more of a risk officer role in their companies, and compliance officers are in the thick of all of these issues. The government has also recently begun to hold compliance officers liable for complicity with company misdeeds. My advice- if it’s not against your company/school policy, take SCCE’s suggestion and hug your compliance officer. I’m sure she’ll appreciate it.

September 20, 2017 in Compliance, Conferences, Corporate Governance, Corporate Personality, Corporations, CSR, Current Affairs, Marcia Narine Weldon | Permalink | Comments (0)

Tuesday, September 19, 2017

The Magical LLC, Part 1

A recent New Republic article states: 

The Community Law Center, a local legal services group, launched an investigation into 1906 Boone and hundreds of other vacant properties around Baltimore. The hunt took more than a year. In many cases, the identity of a property owner was hidden behind a maze of shell companies; an operation called Baltimore Return Fund LLC, for example, had purchased 1906 Boone at a city tax sale for $5,452. Eventually, the investigation revealed a Texas-based web of nearly a dozen LLCs—limited liability corporations, a form of legal tax shelter—that controlled more than 300 properties in Baltimore. Nearly all had been purchased at tax sales, often online, between 2001 and 2010. Most sold for less than $5,000. Many were vacant and in bad shape.

Okay, so we all know LLCs are not limited liability corporations (right?). But the entity form is a "legal tax shelter?"  As a pass-through entity?  What does this word salad mean?  Would this be less of a scourge if some guy owned them instead of the magical LLC?  I don't understand what the entity form has to do with any such concerns at all.  

Suppose they did the research and found out Benefit Corporation, Inc., owned all of them. Would they have breathed a sigh of relief?  

So many questions, so few answers. 

H/T to our astute and helpful reader Gregory J. Corcoran.

September 19, 2017 in Corporations, Joshua P. Fershee, LLCs | Permalink | Comments (1)