Tuesday, April 19, 2016
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
Friday, April 15, 2016
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.
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.
Thursday, April 14, 2016
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.
Tuesday, April 12, 2016
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.
Wednesday, April 6, 2016
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.
Wednesday, March 30, 2016
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:email@example.com 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
Friday, March 25, 2016
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 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.)
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.
Tuesday, March 22, 2016
Legal commentators and the media have been abuzz with news of President Obama's nomination of Judge Merrick Garland to the Supreme Court. If there was ever reason to be abuzz, in the world of legal news, this is it. Try to find a summary of Judge Garland's record in dealing with business law issues, however, and you are met with a silent, dark internet. Aside from mentions of Judge Garland having taught anti-trust at Harvard there is little discussion of his business jurisprudence. The D.C. Circuit court hears an administratively heavy caseload, but Judge Garland has been on the bench for nearly 20 years! I set out to uncover his business law barometer. My initial searches produced 19 opinions that he authored on business law matters, which are mostly securities cases but also include a piercing the corporate veil and contracts claims among others. While I am no online search wizard and am positive that I have missed some relevant cases, this is what I produced after such wide-net casting as "business law", "corporations", "partnership", "board of directors", "shareholders" etc. You get the idea, I ran several undeniably broad searches. The initial case list is provided below, and was generated (along with annotations) through WestLaw. Please comment if you have relevant cases to add. I may add commentary on the cases in a future post if there is interest... (and time).
Securities Law Cases
- Horning v. S.E.C., 570 F.3d 337 (D.C. Cir. 2009)
SECURITIES REGULATION - Brokers and Dealers. Mid-trial correction of sanction the SEC sought did not deprive broker-dealer firm’s former director of due process.
- Graham v. S.E.C., 222 F.3d 994 (D.C. Cir. 2000)
SECURITIES REGULATION - Fraud. Registered representative aided and abetted customer’s fraud.
- Katz v. S.E.C., 647 F.3d 1156 (D.C. Cir. 2011)
SECURITIES REGULATION - Brokers and Dealers. Former registered representation made unsuitable investment recommendations for her customers.
March has provided a slate of mistakes as to entity form, focusing (as it almost always does) on limited liability companies (LLCs) and various outlets calling such entities "corporations." These are not in any particular order, but lists are neat. Enjoy!
(1 ) Politifact Checks Trump Facts, Forgets to Check Entity Law Facts
In an article on Politifact.com, Donald Trump incorrectly says Virginia winery is the largest on East Coast, which determines that Trump's claims about the size of a winery that his son runs to be false and notes some statements are incorrect. Ironically, the article also claims:
A legal disclaimer on the winery website says the GOP presidential candidate doesn’t own the winery. The venture is a limited liability corporation, and its owners are not a matter of public record.
Wrong. The winery site says, "Trump Winery is a registered trade name of Eric Trump Wine Manufacturing LLC, which is not owned, managed or affiliated with Donald J. Trump, The Trump Organization or any of their affiliates." An LLC is still not a corporation.
(2) Big Bang Theory: Big Brains Don't Know Entity Law
I don't watch the Big Bang Theory, but my colleague at Valparaiso University, Professor Rebecca J. Huss, is a reader of this blog who also cares about precise language with regard to LLCs alerted me to this one. The story line of the March 10 show (the show can be found here) related to a the creation of a partnership agreement for some of the characters. One thing that is realistic is that the folks think it's a good idea to form an entity and draft contract language without a lawyer. One character says he has some concerns about the partnership, and another replies with this "joke": "Are you suggesting a limited liability corporation, because I did not LLC that coming." (The offending segment is roughly 14 minutes into the show.) (This was also covered at Kentucky Business Entity Law Blog, here, which noted, "Ughhhh. LLC ≠ limited liability corporation. Rather, LLC = limited liability company.")
(3) Ghost LLCs Masquerading as Corporations
The Washington Post last week ran a story, How ‘ghost corporations’ are funding the 2016 election. The article discusses how entities can be used to shield those backing political candidates. The article states:
Advocates for stronger campaign-finance enforcement fear there will be even more pop-up limited liability corporations (LLCs) funneling money into independent groups, making it difficult to discern the identities of wealthy players seeking to influence this year’s presidential and congressional contests.
. . . .
Many corporate givers this cycle are well-established hedge funds, energy companies and real estate firms. But a significant share of the money is coming from newly formed LLCs with cryptic names that offer few clues about their backers.
(4) Pass-Through Tax Law Isn't Really About Corporations (mostly)
The Topeka Capital-Journal Editorial Board wrote on March 20: LLC loophole needs plugging: Even some small business owners think the tax exemption should be eliminated. The editorial is related to a 2012 Kansas law, HB 2117, which eliminated taxes on pass-though entities like LLCs, S corps, partnerships, farms, and sole proprietorships. (So, I admit, S corps are corporation, but they are essentially partnerships for federal tax purposes.) Even though I agree with some their concerns, the board makes a couple mistakes here when they assert that the bill "was simply an unconditional gift from the state for anyone who has created an entity called a limited liability corporation (LLC)."
First, it assumes that just LLCs get the benefit, which is not true. All pass-though entities benefit. Second, of course, the "limited liability corporation" is a corporation, not an LLC, and the corporation (other than one chosen to be an S corp) does not get the benefit of the law.
(5) Court Gets Entity Right, Regulations Not Quite
I'm not one to leave the courts out of this. Judge Robert M. Dow, Jr., of the United States District Court, Northern Illinois has an incredible resume. A member of Phi Beta Kappa and a Rhodes Scholar, his credentials are impressive. In a recent decision, though, his opinion refers to a defendant LLC correctly, but then goes on to say that Treasury Regulations are silent on treatment of "limited liability corporations." Alas, that's not accurate. Here's the passage:
It is undisputed that, as of the date of Anderson Bros.' withdrawal from the fund, Anderson Bros. (an Illinois corporation) was 100% owned by Anderson. Anderson therefore had a “controlling interest” in Anderson Bros. 29 U.S.C. § 1.414(c)-2(b)(2)(A). At the same time, Defendant (an Illinois limited liability company) was also solely owned by Anderson. Section 1.414(c)-2 of the Treasury Regulations does not address specifically the treatment of limited liability corporations, and the Board does not address this issue in its brief. According to the Internal Revenue Service (“IRS”), “an LLC with only one member is treated as an entity disregarded as separate from its owner for income tax purposes * * *, unless it files Form 8832 and affirmatively elects to be treated as a corporation.” IRS, Single Member Limited Liability Companies, https://www.irs.gov/Businesses/Small-Businesses-&-Self-Employed/Single-Member-Limited-Liability-Companies (last visited Mar. 16, 2016).
Bd. of Trustees of the Auto. Mechanics' Local No. 701 Union & Inustry Pension Fund v. 6516 Ogden Ave., LLC, No. 14-CV-3531, 2016 WL 1043422, at *4 (N.D. Ill. Mar. 16, 2016) (emphasis added).
Tuesday, March 15, 2016
In my Energy Business: Law & Strategy course, I use Larry A. DiMatteo's article, Strategic Contracting: Contract Law as a Source of Competitive Advantage, 47 Am. Bus. L.J. 727 (2010). I have been using the article in the class since 2012 (this is the third time I have taught it), and I think it does a great job of providing a theoretical backdrop for practical application. I teach the article in combination with a one-sided proposed Memorandum of Understanding to help students think about the contracting process and and the long-term implications of what might seem like a small-scale negotiation. I highly recommend the piece.
In reading the article this time around, though, I was struck by how differently the piece treats limited liability companies (LLCs) and corporations and the way concerns about opportunistic behavior are raised in the context of the latter. In one portion of the article, DiMatteo notes:
Corporate strategy that fails to take account of the strategic use of law is likely to waste opportunities for competitive advantages. A corporate legal strategy can be used to gain competitive advantages both internally and externally.
I wholeheartedly agree, and this is part of the reason I teach my course. Although I don't think this is true of just "corporate" strategy, because the same applies to other entities, such as educational institutions, environmental organizations, LLCs, and even governments. Regular readers will not be surprised that I would choose to start the sentence "entity strategy" instead of "corporate strategy, " but his point is still well taken.
Later in the piece, Prof. DiMatteo takes the following position with regard to LLCs:
The freedom of contract paradigm that underlies LLCs allows for broad flexibility in strategically drafting the operating agreement. I will make a distinction here between proper and improper strategic drafting, because a distinction based on legality is insufficient. That is, improper terms may be perfectly legal under some states’ LLC statutes. The argument here is that the freedom of contract construct can lead to contractual abuse, albeit a legally sanctioned abuse. For example, a combination of clauses could be inserted into the operating agreement that strips nonmanager members of all power and protections, such as removal of fiduciary duties relating to the managing member, an indemnification clause to protect the managing member from liability for malfeasance, and a clause providing that the nonmember managers have no right to withdraw or to seek dissolution. These types of provisions may be legal under some statutory schemes, but strict enforcement of these clauses by the managing member would be abusive.
I fail to see why strategic use of law in this context is more problematic than the strategic use of law in other contexts. I do understand and validate concerns about on-going expectations of fiduciary protections related to entities, and that is why, as I have suggested previously, that the lack of fiduciary duties and post-formation changes to fiduciary duties (especially loyalty) should include disclosure and perhaps other structural protections. (I am less concerned about those forming the entity agreeing to limit or eliminate fiduciary duties because they are agreeing to the option at formation when they can object or walk away.) Still, I don't see any reason that freedom of contract in LLCs is fundamentally different from freedom of contract in any other setting, at least as along as you account for a potential knowledge gap about fiduciary duties. In contrast, I liked how Larry Ribstein framed the question of possible promoter liability for LLCs in New York, where he argued that one could make a complaint that "alleged a misrepresentation which would be actionable without implying a fiduciary duty."
I do agree with Prof. DiMatteo when he says, "In the end, contracts can be a strategic tool in obtaining a competitive advantage, or they can be a tool to support collaboration by minimizing the opportunities for advantage taking." Freedom of contract in LLC formation embraces both of these concepts, too. I just think that those forming the entity should be the ones to determine which path they will take.
Friday, March 11, 2016
Some of our December graduates haven just taken the Florida bar exam. As always, I asked them about the business associations questions. Florida drastically changed its LLC rules in 2014, but still hasn’t asked any questions about LLCs, focusing instead on partnerships and corporations (at least according to the students). From a review of the released questions, the bar didn’t ask about LLCs before the amendments either.
I teach BA again next year and I’m struggling with what to emphasize. Business Associations is not required in many Florida law schools, but it is at St. Thomas, and many students enter the class with trepidation. Most will only take the one required course and won’t go on to advanced classes in securities regulation, corporate taxation, or other drafting courses. I try to focus the required BA class on skills that graduates will need in the workplace in addition to preparing them for the bar by using released test questions. Now I wonder how to balance the tension between the rise of LLCs and the many changes in laws related to securities regulation with the bar’s continued focus on partnerships and traditional corporations.
Yesterday the Obama administration added Miami to the list of tech hire jurisdictions. The Kauffman Index ranks Miami as second in the country for startups. Last month, a blogger highlighted my city’s proximity to Latin America and our emerging tech scene. With these realities in mind, should I add even more to what I already teach about legal issues that entrepreneurs and startups face even if that’s not what the Florida bar tests? I never want to “teach to the test” but I also want to make sure that I am responsible in my pedagogy, which for me includes marking up operating agreements, spending time demystifying IPO filings, and introducing them to hybrid entities that entrepreneurs ask about.
Unlike 20 other states, Florida has not adopted the Uniform Bar Exam, but I believe that any test that asks students to do the kind of critical analysis they would have to do in practice is a good thing. This week the Florida bar established a new committee to consider the issue, but I don’t have high hopes for a quick change to the bar exam. Lawyers here recently killed a proposal for reciprocity, and some see the UBE as a back door effort to flood Florida with out of staters.
So I have a conflict. How do other professors tackle the coverage issue? Comment below or feel free to email me at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Wednesday, March 9, 2016
Fellow BLPB editor, Stefan Padfield, raised some insightful questions on the continued reach and impact of defacto corporation doctrines and corporation by estoppel in an earlier, offline conversation. [Stefan uses my Business Organizations casebook offered on the electronic platform ChartaCourse and was graciously providing me some feedback]. The conversation raised two related groups of questions. First what is the continued import and application of defacto corporation doctrine in a world of standardized incorporation processes. Long gone are the days of lost mail (lost Email maybe) and corrections can be made nearly instanteously and will relatively little cost in the event of typos or other defects. To what extent does the de facto doctrine, long a staple of the survey law school course on corporations, still play a relevant role in practice. I understand all of the doctrinal reasons law professors may want to continue to teach it because it tests the outer limits of the substance over form debate in corporations and the begs the questions how fragile or strong is the legal fiction of separately incorporated entities. It is nearly as fun as piercing the corporate veil! But in [insert finger quotes here] "real life" or "practice" how relevant is this doctrine?
The MBCA Section 2.04 Liability for Preincorporation Transactions states "All persons purporting to act as or on behalf of a corporation, knowing there was no incorporation under this Act, are jointly and severally liable for all liabilities created while so acting." Despite earlier attempts to eliminate the doctrine of de facto corporations ("Therefore a de facto corporation cannot exist under the Model Act. Comments to section 56 in 1969 Model Act), the current version makes clear that the de facto doctrine lives on. "A number of situations have arisen, however, in which the protection of limited liability arguable should be recognized even though the simple incorporation process established by modern statutes has not been completed."
The MBCA, as a uniform statute, is a guide, but not operative law under individual state corporate charters. An initial count finds 27 jurisdictions with statutory language expressly acknowledging a knowledge-based standard for de facto corporations similar to that established in the MBCA. Many other states recognize de facto doctrine solely through case law. A few jurisdictions, such as Alaska and Idaho explicitly abolish de facto corporations via statutory text. Idaho recently changed the statute to state: "All persons purporting to act as or on behalf of a corporation, when there was no incorporation under this chapter, are jointly and severally liable for all liabilities created while so acting." Idaho Code Ann. § 30-29-204 (West)The highlighted word "when" replaced "knowing".
Academic interest in de facto corporation doctrines, a hot topic in the early 1900's (see, e.g. Edward H. Warren, Collateral Attack on Incorporation A. De Facto Corporations, 20 Harv. L. Rev. 456, 479-80 (1907)), has waned. One exception is the 2009 article The Doctrine of Defective Incorporation and its Tenuous Coexistence with the Model Business Corporation Act, by Timothy Wyatt,
This paper revisits the earlier studies and demonstrates that the apparently inconsistent findings were the result of analytical flaws. The paper then presents a new extensive study of post-MBCA defective incorporation cases, and demonstrates by statistical regression that the courts have continued to apply the defective incorporation doctrine (the MBCA notwithstanding) and that the courts have applied the doctrine in a way that is highly predictable: Where the defendant is active in the management of a business entity that is not validly incorporated, he will not be held personally liable for his actions on behalf of the corporation so long as he believed the corporation was valid at the time of the actions.
I conclude that, for the situation where the shareholders of a defective corporation seek limited liability, the concepts of “de facto corporation” and “corporation by estoppel” are largely indistinguishable and are really two different ways of stating the unitary common-law doctrine of defective incorporation. The outcomes of these cases are highly predictable if one considers whether the shareholder of the defectively incorporated entity is acting in good faith—a factor that has been neglected by previous commentators. I also conclude that, while the attempted abolition of the defective-incorporation doctrine by the MBCA injected some uncertainty into the outcomes of cases, the courts largely ignored the MBCA on this point. In fact, the judicial backlash against attempts to legislate defective incorporation out of existence may actually have strengthened the doctrine.
My initial reading of this is that attempts to eliminate the doctrine have failed. De facto corporations remains intact and a relevant legal theory. Justifications for removing de facto incorporation persist even though the process of incorporation has changed. The bottom line is that human error may still necessitate the doctrine. At a minimum, a variety of jurisdictions agree as evidenced by statute or common law.
Related to the inquiry on de facto corporations is the extension of any changes or continued relevance to the uncorporate entities space. Those issues will be tackled in a separate post.
Friday, March 4, 2016
For those of you who talk about the recent problems at Volkswagen in your classes, this recently posted article may be useful. I connected with Charles Elson briefly when I lived in Delaware, and he is certainly an authority on corporate governance. The article is available here and the abstract is posted below.
Although the primary cause of the emissions scandal at Volkswagen appears to have been misfeasance and malfeasance on a corporate-wide scale, we argue that such a problematic culture existed at Volkswagen because of the composition of the board itself in combination with the unique governance structure known as “co-determination,” that defines many German companies, including VW. There are three major problems from a corporate governance standpoint with the Volkswagen board. First, is the interest-conflicting nature of the dual-class stock held by the dominant shareholding Porsche and Piech families. Second, is the presence of a government as a major shareholder. And third is the organization of its characteristically German “two-tier” board around the principle of co-determination, which mandated significant labor representation. We argue that each of these elements of the VW ownership and governance structure contributed in varying degrees to the board failure of oversight that led to the management decision to evade emissions regulations.
Christopher Bruner recently posted a book chapter entitled The Corporation's Intrinsic Attributes. I try to read everything Christopher writes, including his excellent Cambridge University Press book, Corporate Governance in the Common Law World, and I am looking forward to reading this new book chapter over spring break next week. The book chapter's abstract is reproduced below for interested readers:
Numerous treatises, casebooks, and other resources commonly present concise lists of attributes said to be intrinsic to the modern corporation and/or essential to its economic utility. Such descriptions of the corporate form often constitute introductory matter, conditioning how students, professionals, and public officials alike approach corporate law by presenting a straightforward framework to distinguish the corporate form from other types of business entities. There are two significant problems with such frameworks, however, from a pedagogic perspective. First, these frameworks describe the corporation by reference to purportedly fixed intrinsic attributes, conflicting sharply with the flux and dynamism that have in fact characterized the history of corporate law. Second, these frameworks differ markedly from each other in how they characterize the corporation's attributes, each embodying a contestable perspective on the nature of the corporate form.
The diversity of perspectives that such inquiry reveals calls into question the degree to which we can validly deduce a single correct or optimal division of power between boards and shareholders, degree of regard for shareholder interests, and/or degree of liability exposure for boards and shareholders, based exclusively on premises purportedly intrinsic to corporate law itself - that is, without express appeal to external policy considerations and related regulatory fields. These matters map onto three core issues of corporate law and governance - power, purpose, and risk-taking, respectively - and the inability to resolve them by reference to the corporation's purportedly intrinsic features suggests that re-conceptualizing the corporate form might facilitate more effective assessment of its capabilities.
This chapter undertakes that project. Section I begins with an historical discussion of the corporation's emergence and early deployment for business in the United Kingdom and the United States. Section II turns to various contemporary descriptions of the corporation's intrinsic attributes presented in modern reference materials, exploring their commonalities, differences, and theoretical implications. Section III explores the impossibility of resolving core issues of power, purpose, and risk-taking by reference to such conceptions of the corporate form, providing three US examples that map onto these respective issues - the scope of shareholders' bylaw authority, the degree of board discretion to consider non-shareholder interests in hostile takeovers, and the regulation of financial risk-taking following the recent crisis. Each illustrates the necessity of resort to political discourse - a reality underscored through comparison with the United Kingdom, which reveals substantial divergence on such issues notwithstanding broad similarities between the US and UK corporate governance regimes.
The chapter concludes, in Section IV, by proposing that we refrain from describing the corporate form by reference to purportedly fixed intrinsic attributes. I argue that it would pay to re-conceptualize the modern corporation by reference to the tools it offers, and how those tools can be deployed - a series of governance "levers," I suggest, that can be adjusted and calibrated in various ways to pursue a broad range of governance-related goals.
Presidential candidate Donald Trump has repeatedly stated that he never plans to eat Oreo cookies again because the Nabisco plant is closing and moving to Mexico. Trump, who has starred in an Oreo commercial in the past, is actually wrong about the nature of Nabisco’s move, and it’s unlikely that he will affect Nabisco’s sales notwithstanding his tremendous popularity among some in the electorate right now. Mr. Trump has also urged a boycott of Apple over how that company has handled the FBI’s request over the San Bernardino terrorist’s cell phone.
Strangely, I haven’t heard a call for a boycott of Apple products following shareholders’ rejection of a proposal to diversify the board last week. I would think that Reverend and former candidate Al Sharpton, who called for the boycott of the Oscars due to lack of diversity would call for a boycott of all things Apple. But alas, for now Trump seems to be the lone voice calling for such a move (and not because of diversity). In fact, I’ve never walked past an Apple Store without thinking that there must be a 50% off sale on the merchandise. There are times when the lines are literally out the door. Similarly, despite the #Oscarssowhite controversy and claims from many that the boycott worked because the Oscars had historically low ratings, viewership among black film enthusiasts was only down 2% this year.
So why do people constantly call for boycotts? According to a Freakonomics podcast from January, they don’t actually work. Historians and economists made it clear in interviews that they only succeed as part of an established social movement. In some cases they can backfire leading to a "buycott," as it did for Chik Fil A. The podcast also put into context much of what we believe are the boycott “success stories,” including the Montgomery Bus Boycott with Rosa Parks and the sit in movement related to apartheid in the 1980s.
I have spent much of my time looking at disclosure legislation that is based in part on the theory that informed consumers and socially-responsible investors will boycott or divest holdings (see here, here, and here). In particular, I have focused on the Dodd-Frank conflict minerals corporate governance disclosure and why I don’t think that using name and shame laws work—namely because consumers talk a good game in surveys but actually don’t purchase based on social criteria nearly as much as NGOs and legislators believe.
The SEC was supposed to decide whether to file a cert petition to the Supreme Court on the part of the conflict minerals legislation that was struck down on First Amendment grounds by March 9th but they now have an extension until April. Since I wrote an amicus brief in the case at the lower level, I have a particular interest in this filing. I had planned my business and human rights class on disclosures and boycotts around that cert. filing to make it even more relevant to my students, who will do a role play simulation drafted by Professor Erika George representing civil society (NGOs, investors, and other stakeholders), the electronics industry, the US government (state department, Congress, and SEC), Congolese militia, the Congolese government, and the Congolese people. The only group they won’t represent is US consumers, even though that’s the target group of the Dodd-Frank disclosure. I did tweak Professor George’s materials but purposely chose not to add in the US consumer group. After my students step out of their roles, we will have the honest discussions about their own views and buying habits. I’ll try not to burst any boycott bubbles.
March 4, 2016 in Compliance, Corporate Governance, Corporations, CSR, Current Affairs, Financial Markets, Human Rights, International Business, International Law, Law School, Legislation, Marcia Narine, Securities Regulation, Shareholders, Teaching | Permalink | Comments (1)
Wednesday, March 2, 2016
I have long followed the trials and tribulations of Chesapeake Energy and founder Aubrey McClendon, and I had been planning to write about yesterday's indictment of McClendon for bid rigging in a couple weeks, after I gathered more information. About an hour ago, though, reports broke that former Chesapeake CEO Aubrey McClendon died today. According to CNBC:
McClendon crashed into an embankment while traveling at a "high rate of speed" in Oklahoma City just after 9 a.m. Wednesday morning, said Capt. Paco Balderrama of the Oklahoma City Police Department. Flames engulfed McClendon's vehicle "immediately," and it was burnt so badly that police could not tell if he was wearing a seatbelt, he said.
Before going any further, my thoughts go out to his friends and family. Regardless of how anything else comes together, their loss is real, and I feel badly for them.
In years past, I have questioned how Chesapeake conducted some of their business, including their use of entities and their leasing practices in Michigan and whether loan practices McClendon used personally were at odds with his fiduciary duties to Chesapeake. This round of bid rigging allegations were new to me (a Michigan case settled last year), and I was researching this set of allegations to see what I thought about this case. I remain curious whether it was a case of "singling him out" unfairly, as he claimed, or were there some strong evidence of more.
And even if he were being singled out, was it because the practice didn't occur or is it just how everyone did business? That question remains an open one, even if the case against McClendon is now closed. I hope to learn more in the coming weeks.As to the impact on his former company, CNBC notes:
Chesapeake said Tuesday that it did not expect to face criminal prosecution or fines related to McClendon's charges. The company's stock, which was already substantially higher Wednesday, briefly added to gains following news of McClendon's death.
Monday, February 22, 2016
University of Cincinnati College of Law │ The 29th Annual Corporate Law Center Symposium │Corporate Social Responsibility and the Modern Enterprise │ Cincinnati, OH │ March 18, 2016
I am looking forward to presenting at this conference next month. Looks like a great group of academics and practitioners.
University of Cincinnati College of Law
The 29th Annual Corporate Law Center Symposium - Corporate Social Responsibility and the Modern Enterprise
March 18, 2016
8:45 a.m. – 3:30 p.m.
Hilton Netherland Plaza
This event is free. CLE: 5.0 hours, pending approval.
Presented by the University of Cincinnati College of Law’s Corporate Law Center and Law Review.
Symposium materials will be available on March 14 at: law.uc.edu/corporate-law-center/2016-symposium
Please register by contacting Lori Strait: email Lori.Stait@uc.edu; fax 513-556-1236; or phone 513-556-0117
Introduction, 8:45 a.m.
Keynote, 9:00 a.m.
Clare Iery, The Procter & Gamble Company
Social Enterprises and Changing Legal Forms, 9:30 a.m.
Mark Loewenstein, University of Colorado Law School
William H. Clark, Jr., Drinker Biddle & Reath LLP
Haskell Murray, Belmont University College of Business
Russell Menyhart, Taft Stettinius & Hollister LLP
Sourcing Dilemmas in a Globalized World, 11:00 a.m.
Steve Slezak, University of Cincinnati College of Business
Marsha A. Dickson, University of Delaware Department of Fashion & Apparel Studies
Tianlong Hu, Renmin University of China Law School
Anita Ramasastry, University of Washington School of Law
CSR and the Closely Held Company, 1:15 p.m.
Eric Chaffee, The University of Toledo College of Law
Michael Petrucci, FirstGroup America, Inc.
Lisa Wintersheimer Michel, Keating Muething & Klekamp PLL
Sourcing From the Enterprise Perspective, 2:30 p.m.
Christopher Bedell, The David J. Joseph Company
Walter Spiegel, Standard Textile Co. Inc.
Martha Cutright Sarra, The Kroger Co.
Conclusion, 3:30 p.m.
February 22, 2016 in Business Associations, Conferences, Corporate Governance, Corporations, CSR, Ethics, Haskell Murray, Human Rights, Law School, Research/Scholarhip, Shareholders, Social Enterprise | Permalink | Comments (0)
Free Web Seminar: The Opportunities and Pitfalls of Cybersecurity and Data Privacy in Mergers and Acquisitions
One of my two former firms, King & Spalding, is hosting a free interactive web seminar on cybersecurity and M&A on February 25 at 12:30 p.m. Thought the web seminar might be of interest to some of our readers. The description is reproduced below.
An Interactive Web Seminar
The Opportunities and Pitfalls of Cybersecurity and Data Privacy in Mergers and Acquisitions
February 25, 2016
12:30 PM – 1:30 PM
Over the last several years, company after company has been rocked by cybersecurity incidents. Moreover, obligations relating to cybersecurity and data privacy are rapidly evolving, imposing on corporations a complex and challenging legal and regulatory environment. Cybersecurity and data privacy deficiencies, therefore, might pose potentially significant business, legal, and regulatory risks to an acquiring company. For this reason, cybersecurity and data privacy are becoming integral pre-transaction due diligence items.
This e-Learn will analyze the (1) special cybersecurity and data privacy dangers that come with corporate transactions; (2) strategies to mitigate those dangers; and (3) benefits of incorporating cybersecurity and data privacy into due diligence. The panel will zero in on these issues from the vantage point of practitioners in the deal trenches, and from the perspective of a former computer crime prosecutor and a former FBI agent who have dealt with a broad range of cyber risks to public and private corporations. This e-Learn is for managers and attorneys at all levels who are involved at any stage of the M&A process and at any stage of cyber literacy, from the beginner who is just starting to appreciate the complex nature of cyber risks to the expert who has addressed them for years. The discussion will leave you with a better understanding of this critical topic and concrete, practical suggestions to bring back to your M&A team.
Robert Leclerc, King & Spalding’s Corporate Practice Group and experienced deal counsel; Nick Oldham, King & Spalding, and Former Counsel for Cyber Investigations, DOJ's National Security Division; John Hauser, Ernst & Young, and former FBI Special Agent specializing in cyber investigations.