Thursday, February 16, 2017
This post does not concern President Trump’s own business empire. Rather, this post will be the first of a few to look at how the President retains, repeals, or replaces some of the work that President Obama put in place in December 2016 as part of the National Action Plan on Responsible Business Conduct. Many EU nations established their NAPS year ago, but the U.S. government engaged in two years of stakeholder consultations and coordinated with several federal agencies before releasing its NAP.
Secretary of State Tillerson will play a large role in enforcing or revising many of the provisions of the NAP because the State Department promotes the Plan on its page addressing corporate social responsibility. Unlike many federal government pages, this page has not changed (yet) with the new administration. As the State Department explained in December, “the NAP reflects the government's commitment to promoting human rights and fighting corruption through partnerships with domestic and international stakeholders. An important part of this commitment includes encouraging companies to embrace high standards for responsible business conduct.” Over a dozen federal agencies worked to develop the NAP.
We now have a new Treasury Secretary and will soon have a new Secretary of Labor, presumably FIU Law Dean and former US Attorney Alex Acosta, a new SEC Chair, presumably Jay Clayton, and a new Secretary of Commerce, presumably Wilbur Ross. These men, along with Attorney General Jeff Sessions and Secretary of State Tillerson will lead the key agencies enforcing or perhaps revising the country’s commitment to responsible business conduct.
The following list of priorities and initiatives comes directly from the Fact Sheet:
Strengthening laws preventing the import of goods produced by forced labor to ensure products made under exploitative conditions do not gain U.S. market access.
Updating social and environmental standards criteria for financing through the Overseas Private Investment Corporation, to promote high standards through U.S.-supported private investment.
Creating guidance on social safeguards for USAID’s development programs.
Funding efforts to promote awareness and implementation of the United Nations Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights.
Publishing, for the first time, an annual report by the U.S. National Contact Point for the OECD Guidelines.
Identifying means through trade agreements to encourage companies to engage in RBC.
Enhancing information sharing with sub-national governments on public procurement best practices, to ensure that governments at all levels promote RBC through purchasing.
Collaboration with Stakeholders
In order to achieve shared RBC goals, it is essential for governments to work with the private sector, as well as with civil society, labor, and other stakeholders, to leverage each other’s resources and strengths. The USG’s measures to collaborate with such stakeholders include:
Establishing a formal mechanism for increased government participation in “multi-stakeholder initiatives” that promote RBC in various sectors and regions.
Convening stakeholders to develop and promote effective metrics for measuring and managing labor rights impacts in supply chains.
Facilitating a dialogue with stakeholders on implementation of the Sustainable Development Goals.
Promoting worker voice and empowerment in global supply chains via new tools that allow workers in national supply chains to directly report potential labor abuses and workplace safety violations, as well as leveraging public-private partnerships to more fully incorporate the perspectives of workers.
Facilitating RBC by Companies
The USG encourages companies to follow the best domestic and international practices and is supportive of company efforts to voluntarily report on certain aspects of their operations. The USG produces a number of reports that can be useful for companies as they seek to uphold high standards, sometimes in challenging environments. The NAP sets forth an illustrative list of USG initiatives to further that work, including the following commitments:
Creating an online database containing government reports on issues such as human rights, human trafficking including forced labor, child labor, and investment climates so that companies can more effectively make investment decisions and mitigate risk.
Providing new and increased training for USG officers and officials, including those who serve abroad, on RBC issues so that government officials are well-equipped to advise companies on considerations such as the status of labor rights, human rights and transparency, in a particular operating environment.
Training for USG officials on the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act and related issues.
Updating country-level public land governance profiles that explain land laws, land use patterns, gender concerns, land administration, and land markets within a given country. These profiles are an important tool for businesses making responsible land-based investments in a given country.
Recognizing Positive Performance
U.S. companies make tremendous contributions to communities around the world by generating economic growth, creating jobs, spurring innovation, and providing solutions to pressing challenges such as access to clean energy, healthcare, and technology. The USG recognizes and highlights when companies achieve high standards with meaningful results for workers and communities. Such items include...
Developing an online mechanism to identify, document, and publicize lessons learned and best practices related to corporate actions that promote and respect human rights.
Providing Access to Remedy
Even when governments and companies seek to act responsibly, challenges can arise. Both governments and companies should have mechanisms in place by which affected parties can raise concerns, report problems, and seek remedies, as appropriate. Through the NAP, the USG is furthering its commitment to this objective by:
Improving the performance of the U.S. National Contact Point for the OECD Guidelines for Multinational Enterprises, including by announcing a fall 2017 peer review, organizing workshops to promote RBC, and publishing an outreach plan.
Hosting a forum for dialogue with stakeholders on opportunities and challenges regarding issues of remedy, as well as how the USG can best support effective remedy processes.
I will continue to follow up on this issue as well as how corporate compliance and governance may change under the Trump Administration.
Tuesday, February 14, 2017
I hope this Valentine's Day is a good one for you, dear readers. Mine started with a random (minor) dog bite on my morning run, followed by some time with some very nice health care professionals and quite a few less pleasant needles.
A friend alerted me to the law-related Twitter hashtag #AppellateValentines. Some of them are quite funny. See, e.g.,
Your wish is my mandamus. #AppellateValentines— Emil J. Kiehne (@EmilKiehne) February 14, 2017
There is also a #BusinessValentines hashtag, which is less creative, but has its moments. Of course, there was no #BusinessLawValentines, but there should be and there is now. I went first. Join in, if you're so inclined.
Even if we lived in Delaware, I'd never disclaim my duty of loyalty to you #BusinessLawValentines— Joshua Fershee (@jfershee) February 14, 2017
If you loved me back, we could be Citizens United #BusinessLawValentines— Joshua Fershee (@jfershee) February 14, 2017
And, of course, I could not resist:
Friday, February 10, 2017
Laureate Education recently became the first standalone publicly traded benefit corporation. They are organized under Delaware's public benefit corporation (PBC) law, are also a certified B corporation, and will be trading as LAUR on NASDAQ.
Plum Organics, also a Delaware PBC, is a wholly owned subsidiary of publicly-traded Campbell Soup Company. And Etsy is a publicly traded certified-B corporation, but is organized under traditional Delaware corporation law.
Whether the for-profit educator Laureate will hurt or help the popularity of benefit corporations remains to be seen, but some for-profit educators have not been getting good press lately.
Inside Higher Ed reports on Laureate Education's IPO as a benefit corporation below:
The largest U.S.-based for-profit college chain became the first benefit corporation to go public Wednesday morning.
Laureate Education, which has more than a million students at 71 institutions across 25 countries, had been privately traded since 2007. Several major for-profit higher education companies have over the last decade bounced back and forth between publicly and privately held status; also yesterday, by coincidence, the Apollo Group, owner of the University of Phoenix, formally went back into private hands….In its public debut, the company raised $490 million….
Becker said the move to become the first benefit corporation that is public is one way to show that Laureate is putting quality first.“There is certainly plenty of skepticism about whether for-profit companies can add value to society, and I feel strongly we can,” Becker said, adding that Laureate received certification from the nonprofit group B Lab after years of “rigorous” evaluations….
But the certification and the move to becoming a benefit corporation doesn’t prove a for-profit will not make bad decisions or commit risky actions that hurt students, said Bob Shireman, a senior fellow at the Century Foundation and for-profit critic.
"The one thing that being a benefit corporation does is reduce the likelihood that shareholders would sue the corporation for failing to operate in the shareholders' financial interest," Shireman said. "So it makes a marginal difference, and there's no evidence that benefit corporations, in the 10 or so years they've existed in the economy, cause better behavior."
Companies and investors could make better choices and decisions for their students without needing a benefit corporation model to do that, Shireman said, adding that the legal protection it provides is small.
"What's more important are what commitments are being made under the rubric of being a benefit corporation," he said. "How is that going to be measured and enforced … and how can they be changed or overruled by stockholders."
Head of Legal Policy at B Lab Rick Alexander, also authored a post on Laureate Education. For those who do not know, B Lab is the nonprofit responsible for the B Corp Certification and an important force behind the benefit corporation legislation that has passed in 30 states.
Thursday, February 9, 2017
Shortly after the election in November, I blogged about Eleven Corporate Governance and Compliance Questions for the President-Elect. Those questions (in italics) and my updates are below:
- What will happen to Dodd-Frank? There are already a number of house bills pending to repeal parts of Dodd-Frank, but will President Trump actually try to repeal all of it, particularly the Dodd-Frank whistleblower rule? How would that look optically? Former SEC Commissioner Paul Atkins, a prominent critic of Dodd-Frank and the whistleblower program in particular, is part of Trump's transition team on economic issues, so perhaps a revision, at a minimum, may not be out of the question.
Last week, via Executive Order, President Trump made it clear (without naming the law) that portions of Dodd-Frank are on the chopping block and asked for a 120-day review. Prior to signing the order, the President explained, “We expect to be cutting a lot out of Dodd-Frank…I have so many people, friends of mine, with nice businesses, they can’t borrow money, because the banks just won’t let them borrow because of the rules and regulations and Dodd-Frank.” An executive order cannot repeal Dodd-Frank, however. That would require a vote of 60 votes in the Senate. To repeal or modify portions, the Senate only requires a majority vote.
Some portions of Dodd-Frank are already gone including the transparency provision, §1504, which NGOs had touted because it forced US issuers in the extractive industries to disclose certain payments made to foreign governments. I think this was a mistake. By the time you read this post, the controversial conflict minerals rule, which requires companies to determine and disclose whether tin, tungsten, tantalum, or gold come from the Democratic Republic of Congo or surrounding countries, may also be history. The President may issue another executive order this week that may spell the demise of the rule, especially because others in Congress have already introduced bills to repeal it. I agree with the repeal, as I have written about here, because I don’t think that the SEC is the right agency to address the devastating human rights crisis in Congo.
As for the whistleblower provisions, it is too soon to tell. See #7 below.
Based on an earlier Executive Order meant to cut regulations in general and the President’s reliance on corporate raider/activist Carl Icahn as regulation czar, we can assume that the financial sector will experience fewer and not more regulations under Trump.
- What will happen with the two SEC commissioner vacancies? How will this president and Congress fund the agency? 3. Will SEC Chair Mary Jo White stay or go and how might that affect the work of the agency to look at disclosure reform?
President Trump has nominated Jay Clayton, a lawyer who has represented Goldman Sachs and Alibaba to replace former prosecutor Mary Jo White. Based on his background and past representations, we may see less enforcement of the FCPA and more focus on capital formation and disclosure reform. Observers are divided on the FCPA enforcement because 2016 had some record-breaking fines. As for the other SEC vacancies, I will continue to monitor this.
- How will the vow to freeze the federal workforce affect OSHA, which enforces Sarbanes-Oxley?
The Department of Labor enforces OSHA, and the current nominee for Secretary, Andy Pudzer, is a fast food CEO with some labor issues of his own. His pro-business stance and his opposition to increases in the minimum wage and the DOL white-collar exemption changes don’t necessarily predict how he would enforce SOX, but we can assume that it won’t be as much of a priority as rolling back regulations he has already publicly opposed.
- In addition to the issues that Trump has with TPP and NAFTA, how will his administration and the Congress deal with the Export-Import (Ex-IM) bank, which cannot function properly as it is due to resistance from some in Congress. Ex-Im provides financing, export credit insurance, loans, and other products to companies (including many small businesses) that wish to do business in politically-risky countries.
- How will a more conservative Supreme Court deal with the business cases that will appear before it?
I will comment on this after the confirmation hearings of nominee Neil Gorsuch. Others have already predicted that he will be pro-business.
- Who will be the Attorney General and how might that affect criminal prosecution of companies and individuals? Should we expect a new memo or revision of policies for Assistant US Attorneys that might undo some of the work of the Yates Memo, which focuses on corporate cooperation and culpable individuals?
Senator Jeff Sessions was confirmed yesterday after a contentious hearing. During his hearing, he indicated that he supported whistleblower provisions related to the False Claims Act, and many believe that he will retain retain the Yates Memo. Ironically, prior to that confirmation, President Trump fired Acting Attorney General Sally Yates, for refusing to defend the President’s executive order on refugees and travel.
- What will happen with the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, which the DC Circuit recently ruled was unconstitutional in terms of its structure and power?
Despite, running on a populist theme, Trump has targeted a number of institutions meant to protect consumers. Based on reports, we will likely see some major restrictions on the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau and the rules related to disclosure and interest rates. Trump will likely replace the head, Richard Cordray, whom many criticize for his perceived unfettered power and the ability to set his own budget. The Financial Stability Oversight Council, established to address large, failing firms without the need for a bailout, is also at risk. The Volker Rule, which restricts banks from certain proprietary investments and limits ownership of covered funds, may also see revisions.
- What will happen with the Obama administration's executive orders on Cuba, which have chipped away at much of the embargo? The business community has lobbied hard on ending the embargo and eliminating restrictions, but Trump has pledged to require more from the Cuban government. Would he also cancel the executive orders as well?
I will comment on this in a separate post.
- What happens to the Public Company Accounting Board, which has had an interim director for several months?
The PCAOB is not directly covered by the February 3rd Executive Order described in #1, and many believe that the Executive Order related to paring back regulations will not affect the agency either, although the agency is already conducting its own review of regulations. In December, the agency received a budget increase.
- Jeb Henserling, who has adamantly opposed Ex-Im, the CFPB, and Dodd-Frank is under consideration for Treasury Secretary. What does this say about President-elect Trump's economic vision?
President Trump has tapped ex-Goldman Sachs veteran Steve Mnuchin, and some believe that he will be good for both Wall Street and Main Street. More to come on this in the future.
I will continue to update this list over the coming months. I will post separately today updating last week’s post on the effects of consumer boycotts and how public sentiment has affected Superbowl commercials, litigation, and the First Daughter all in the past few days.
February 9, 2017 in Compliance, Corporate Governance, Corporations, Current Affairs, Financial Markets, Human Rights, International Business, Legislation, Marcia Narine Weldon, Securities Regulation | Permalink | Comments (0)
Thursday, February 2, 2017
Donald Trump has had a busy two weeks. Even before his first official day on the job, then President-elect Trump assembled an economic advisory board. On Monday, January 23rd, President Trump held the first of his quarterly meetings with a number of CEOs to discuss economic policy. On January 27th, the President issued what some colloquially call a “Muslim ban” via Executive Order, and within days, people took to the streets in protest both here and abroad.
These protests employed the use of hashtag activism, which draws awareness to social causes via Twitter and other social media avenues. The first “campaign,” labeled #deleteuber, shamed the company because people believed (1) that the ride-sharing app took advantage of a work stoppage by protesting drivers at JFK airport, and (2) because they believed the CEO had not adequately condemned the Executive Order. Uber competitor Lyft responded via Twitter and through an email to users that it would donate $1 million to the ACLU over four years to “defend our Constitution.” Uber, which is battling its drivers in courts around the country, then established a $3 million fund for drivers affected by the Executive Order. An estimated 200,000 users also deleted their Uber accounts because of the social media campaign, and the CEO resigned today from the economic advisory board.
Other CEOs, feeling the pressure, have also issued statements against the Order. In response, some companies such as Starbucks, which pledged to hire 10,000 refugees, have faced a boycott from many Trump supporters, which in turn may lead to a “buycott” from Trump opponents and actually generate more sales. This leads to the logical question of whether these political statements are good or bad for business, and whether it's better to just stay silent unless the company has faced a social media campaign. Professor Bainbridge recently blogged about the issue, observing:
The bulk of Lyft's business is conducted in large coastal cities. In other words, Obama/Clinton country. By engaging in blatant virtue signaling, which it had to know would generate untold millions of dollars worth of free coverage when social media and the news picked the story up, Lyft is very cheaply buying "advertising" that will effectively appeal to its big city/blue state user base.
Bainbridge also asks whether “Uber's user base is more evenly distributed across red and blue states than Lyft? And, if so, will Uber take that into account?” This question resonates with me because some have argued on social media (with no evidentiary support) that Trump supporters don’t go to Starbucks anyway, and thus their boycott would fail.
All of this boycott/boycott/CEO activism over the past week has surprised me. I have posted in the past about consumer boycotts and hashtag activism/slacktivism because I am skeptical about consumers’ ability to change corporate behavior quickly or meaningfully. The rapid response from the CEOs over the past week, however, has not changed my mind about the ultimate effect of most boycotts. Financial donations to activist groups and statements condemning the President’s actions provide great publicity, but how do these companies treat their own employees and community stakeholders? Will we see shareholder proposals that ask these firms to do more in the labor and human rights field and if so, will the companies oppose them? Most important, would the failure to act or speak have actually led to any financial losses, even if they are not material? Although 200,000 Uber users deleted their accounts, would they have remained Lyft customers forever if Uber had not changed its stance? Or would they, as I suspect, eventually patronize whichever service provided more convenience and better pricing?
We may never know about the consumers, but I will be on the lookout for any statements from shareholder groups either via social media or in shareholder proposals about the use or misuse of corporate funds for these political causes.
Wednesday, February 1, 2017
On Monday President Trump signed an Executive Order on Reducing Regulation and Controlling Regulatory Costs. The Order uses budgeting powers to constrict agencies and the regulatory process requiring that for each new regulation, two must be eliminated and that all future regulations must have a net zero budgeting effect (or less). The Order states:
"Unless prohibited by law, whenever an executive department or agency (agency) publicly proposes for notice and comment or otherwise promulgates a new regulation, it shall identify at least two existing regulations to be repealed."
Two points to note here. First, the Executive Order does not cover independent agencies like the Securities and Exchange Commission and the Commodity Futures Trading Commission, agencies that crafted many of the rules required by the 2010 Dodd-Frank Wall Street reform law--an act that President Trump describes as a "disaster" and promised to do "a big number on". The SEC, the CFTC and Dodd-Frank are not safe, they will just have to be dealt with through even more sweeping means. Stay tuned. The 2-for-1 regulatory special proposed on Monday is a part of President Trump's promise to cut regulation by 75%.
Second, the Order is intended to remove regulatory obstacles to Americans starting new businesses. President Trump asserted that it is "almost impossible now to start a small business and it's virtually impossible to expand your existing business because of regulations." Facts add nuance to this claim, if not paint an all-together different story. The U.S. Department of Labor Statistics documents a steady increase in the number of new American businesses formed since 2010. The U.S. small business economy grew while regulations were in place. President Trump asks us to believe that they will grow more without regulation. Some already do. The U.S. Chamber of Commerce "applauded" the approach decrying the "regulatory juggernaut that is limiting economic growth, choking small business, and putting people out of work."
Yet, as shocking as this feels (to me), the U.K. and Canada both have experience with a similar framework. The U.K.'s two for one regulation rule has been touted as saving businesses £885 million from May 5, 2015 to May 26, 2016 and there is now a variance requiring three regulations to be removed for each one. Canada takes a more modest one in- one out approach. No information is available yet on any externalities that may be caused by decreased regulations. For some, and I count myself in this camp, the concern is that the total cost of failed environmental protection, wage fairness, safety standards, etc. may outweigh individual gains by small business owners.
The 2-for-1 special evokes some odd memories for me (Midwestern, of modest means) of a K-Mart blue-light special. The Trump Administration is flashing a big, blue light with the promise to cut regulation by 75% without reference to the content of those regulations. The first tool, a "two for one approach" strikes me as a gimmick where the emphasis is on marketing the message of deregulation through quantity, not quality. Not to mention the arbitrariness of the numerical cut off (why not 1 or 13?). It is the type of solution, that if offered in answer to a law school hypo, would quickly be refuted by all of the unanswered questions. Can it be any two regulations? Can the new regulation just be longer and achieve the work of several? Should there be a nexus between the proposed regulation and the eliminated ones? What is the administrative process and burden of proof for identifying the ones to be removed? The Executive Order, targeted at business regulation, but in doing so has created the most "significant administrative action in the world of regulatory reform since President Reagan created the Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs (OIRA) in 1981." Hold on folks, this is going to be a bumpy ride.
Wednesday, January 25, 2017
Spoiler alert: wrongful refusal of demand and bad faith standards are the same in recent Delaware Court of Chancery case: Andersen v. Mattel, Inc., C.A. No. 11816-VCMR (Del. Ch. Jan. 19, 2017, Op by VC Montgomery-Reeves).
But sometimes a reminder that the law is the same and can be clearly stated is worth a blog post in its own right. Professors can use this as a hypo or case note and those in the trenches can update case citations to a 2017 (and 2016) case.
In Andersen v. Mattel, Inc., VC Montgomery-Reeves dismissed a derivative suit, holding that plaintiff did not prove wrongful refusal of pre-suit demand. The derivative action claimed that the Mattel board of directors refused to bring suit to recover up to $11.5 million paid in severance/consulting fees to the former chairman and chief executive officer who left in the wake of a falling stock price. Plaintiff challenged disclosure discrepancies over whether Stockton resigned or was terminated and the resulting entitlement to severance payments. Mattel's board of directors unanimously rejected the demand after consultation with outside counsel, 24 witness interviews and a review of approximately 12,400 documents.
The relied upon case law is unchanged, but the clear recitation of the law is worth noting:
Where, as here, a plaintiff makes demand on the board of directors, the plaintiff concedes that the board is disinterested and independent for purposes of responding to the demand. The effect of such concession is that the decision to refuse demand is treated as any other disinterested and independent decision of the board—it is subject to the business judgment rule. Accordingly, the only issues the Court must examine in analyzing whether the board’s demand refusal was proper are “the good faith and reasonableness of its investigation. (internal citations omitted)
To successfully challenge the good faith and reasonableness of the board's investigation, Plaintiff's complaint was required to state particularized facts raising a reasonable doubt that:
(1) the board’s decision to deny the demand was consistent with its duty of care to act on an informed basis, that is, was not grossly negligent; or (2) the board acted in good faith, consistent with its duty of loyalty. Otherwise, the decision of the board is entitled to deference as a valid exercise of its business judgment.
First, Plaintiff challenged the board's demand refusal on the grounds that they did not disclose the investigation report or the supporting documents in conjunction with the demand refusal. The Court was unpersuaded given that Plaintiff had the right to seek the report and records through a Section 220 demand, but chose not to do so.
Second, Plaintiff challenged the board's demand refusal on the grounds that it failed to form a special committee. Absent any facts that the Mattel board considering the demand was not independent, there was no requirement for the board to form a special committee.
Third, and final, Plaintiff challenged the board's good faith in rejecting the demand on the grounds that Stockton's employment was not voluntarily terminated. The court cautioned that:
[T]he question is not whether the [b]oard’s conclusion was wrong; the question is whether the [b]oard intentionally acted in disregard of [Mattel’s] best interests in deciding not to pursue the litigation the Plaintiff demanded. [T]he fact that the [b]oard’s justifications for refusing [the] demand fall within ‘the bounds of reasonable judgment’ is fatal to [the] claim that the refusal was made in bad faith. (citing to Friedman v. Maffei, (Del. Ch. Apr. 13, 2016))
Francis Pileggi at the excellent Delaware Corporate and Commercial Litigation Blog first brought this case to my attention. Practitioners and Professors alike should be certain to include his blog on your weekly round up. He is a sure source of concise and insightful summaries of the latest Delaware court developments.
Tuesday, January 24, 2017
Friend and co-blogger Marcia Narine Weldon sent me a news article from Alaska discussing a "piercing of the corporate veil" claim for an LLC.
The City and Borough of Juneau demolished the Gastineau Apartments and is trying to get hold members of Gastineau Apartments LLC, apparent owners of the building liable for the $1.4 million demolition costs. Demolition cost more than the land is worth, so the suit is seeking to have the owners of the LLC, Camilla and James Barrett, pay the bill because they missed deadlines to repair or demolish the property.
The article reports:
At issue before Juneau Superior Court Judge Philip Pallenberg is the legal concept of “piercing the corporate veil.” It would allow legal action against the Barretts, who controlled Gastineau Apartments LLC.
Defense Attorney Robert Spitzfaden had argued that the Barretts should remain shielded from liability. But the judge noted that the defendants had allowed their limited liability corporation to be dissolved after missing filing deadlines with the state.
“It’s clear that the Barretts were not always clear to observe the formal legal requirements of their LLC,” Judge Pallenberg said from the bench.
A quick review of Alaska LLC law did not make clear to me that LLCs in the state have formal requirements that would be implicated in this case. If the main reason that the LLC did not pay the bills was a mere lack of money, there is no reason to pierce the veil. It's just a failed venture. Sure, the Barretts should have gone followed the appropriate processes, but it cannot be that the fact that the Barretts "allowed their limited liability corporation [author's note: it's an LLC] to be dissolved after missing filing deadlines with the state" is sufficient to support veil piercing."
Imagine the same scenario, but the building had value. Would missing deadlines and allowing the land owned by LLC to be automatically transferred to the Barretts? Even if there were other creditors? I think not.
Perhaps there is more to this case than the article reveals, but this looks a lot like a lack of entity funds is the only issue, and a lack of funds (on its own) should not be sufficient for veil piercing, especially in a property case where the property can be forfeited. If the city or state wants to make a law making individuals liable, then fine, but this looks like a bad case for veil piercing and a possible summary judgment case. I look forward to seeing if Alaska analyzes this one right at trial.
Thursday, January 19, 2017
Bernard Sharfman, a prolific author on corporate governance, has written his fourth article on the business judgment rule. The piece provides a thought-provoking look at a subject that all business law professors teach. He also received feedback from Myron Steele, former Chief Justice of the Delaware Supreme Court, and William Chandler III, former Chancellor of the Delaware Court of Chancery during the drafting process. I don’t think I will assign the article to my students, but I may take some of the insight when I get to this critical topic this semester. Sharfman has stated that he aims to change the way professors teach the BJR.
The abstract is below:
Anyone who has had the opportunity to teach corporate law understands how difficult it is to provide a compelling explanation of why the business judgment rule (Rule) is so important. To provide a better explanation of why this is so, this Article takes the approach that the Aronson formulation of the Rule is not the proper starting place. Instead, this Article begins by starting with a close read of two cases that initiated the application of the Rule under Delaware law, the Chancery and Supreme Court opinions in Bodell v. General Gas & Elec. By taking this approach, the following insights into the Rule were discovered that may not have been so readily apparent if the starting point was Aronson.
First, without the Rule, the raw power of equity could conceivably require all challenged Board decisions to undergo an entire fairness review. The Rule is the tool used by a court to restrain itself from implementing such a review. This is the most important function of the Rule. Second, as a result of equity needing to be restrained, there is no room in the Rule formulation for fairness; fairness and fiduciary duties must be mutually exclusive. Third, there are three policy drivers that underlie the use of the Rule. Protecting the Board’s statutory authority to run the company without the fear of its members being held liable for honest mistakes of judgment; respect for the private ordering of corporate governance arrangements which almost always grants extensive authority to the Board to make decisions on behalf of the corporation; and the recognition by the courts that they are not business experts, making deference to Board authority a necessity. Fourth, the Rule is an abstention doctrine not just in terms of precluding duty of care claims, but also by requiring the courts to abstain from an entire fairness review if there is no evidence of a breach in fiduciary duties or taint surrounding a Board decision. Fifth, stockholder wealth maximization (SWM) is the legal obligation of the Board and the Rule serves to support that purpose. The requirement of SWM enters into corporate law through a Board’s fiduciary duties as applied under the Rule, not statutory law. In essence, SWM is an equitable concept.
Tuesday, January 17, 2017
Here we go again. Oregon Federal District Court has a new rule on the books:
In diversity actions, any party that is a limited liability corporation (L.L.C.), a limited liability partnership (L.L.P.), or a partnership must, in the disclosure statement required by Fed. R. Civ. P. 7.1, list those states from which the owners/members/partners of the L.L.C., L.L.P., or partnership are citizens. If any owner/member/partner of the L.L.C., L.L.P., or partnership is another L.L.C., L.L.P., or partnership, then the disclosure statement must also list those states from which the owners/members/partners of the L.L.C., L.L.P., or partnership are citizens.
The certification requirements of LR 7.1-1 are broader than those established in Fed. R. Civ. P. 7.1. The Ninth Circuit has held that, “[L]ike a partnership, an LLC is a citizen of every state of which its owners/members/partners are citizens.” Johnson v. Columbia Properties Anchorage, LP, 437 F.3d 894, 899 (9th Cir. 2006). Early state citizenship disclosure will help address jurisdictional issues. Therefore, the disclosure must identify each and every state for which any owner/member/partner is a citizen. The disclosure does not need to include names of any owner/member/partner, nor does it need to indicate the number of owners/members/partners from any particular state.
For federal law purposes, it appears that the rule has excluded LLCs, despite the intent (and likely specific purpose) of the rule. Interestingly, Oregon law, has extended "unless context requires otherwise" the concept of LLCs to apply to partnership and corporate law. Oregon law provides:
Unless the context otherwise requires, throughout Oregon Revised Statutes:
(1) Wherever the term “person” is defined to include both a corporation and a partnership, the term “person” shall also include a limited liability company.(2) Wherever a section of Oregon Revised Statutes applies to both “partners” and “directors,” the section shall also apply:(a) In a limited liability company with one or more managers, to the managers of the limited liability company.(b) In a limited liability company without managers, to the members of the limited liability company.(3) Wherever a section of Oregon Revised Statutes applies to both “partners” and “shareholders,” the section shall also apply to members of a limited liability company.
Friday, January 13, 2017
On Friday, I will present as part of the American Society of International Law’s two-day conference entitled Controlling Corruption: Possibilities, Practical Suggestions & Best Practices. The ASIL Conference is co-sponsored by the University of Miami School of Business Administration, the Business Ethics Program of the University of Miami School of Business Administration, UM Ethics Programs & the Arsht Initiatives, the Zicklin Center for Business Ethics Research, Wharton, University of Pennsylvania, Bentley University, and University of Richmond School of Law.
I am particularly excited for this conference because it brings law, business, and ethics professors together with practitioners from around the world. My panel includes:
Marcia Narine Weldon, St. Thomas University School of Law, “The Conflicted Gatekeeper: The Changing Role of In-House Counsel and Compliance Officers in the Age of Whistle Blowing and Anticorruption Compliance”
Todd Haugh, Kelley School of Business, Indiana University, “The Ethics of Intercorporate Behavioral Ethics”
Shirleen Chin, Institute for Environmental Security, Netherlands, “Reducing the Size of the Loopholes Caused by the Veil of Incorporation May lead to Better Transparency”
Edwin Broecker, Quarles &Brady LLP, Indiana,& Fernanda Beraldi Cummins, Inc, Indiana, “No Good Deed Goes Unpunished: Possible Unintended Consequences of Enforcing Supply Chain Transparency”
Stuart Deming, Deming PLLC, Michigan, “Internal Controls and Compliance Programs”
John W. Fanning, Kroll Compliance, “Lessons from ‘Sully’: Parallels of Flight 1549 and the Path to Compliance and Organizational Excellence”
I will discuss some of the same themes that I blogged about here last July related to how the Department of Justice Yates Memo (requiring companies to turn over culpable individuals in order to get cooperation credit) and to a lesser extent the SEC Dodd-Frank Whistleblower program may alter the delicate balance of trust in the attorney-client relationship. Additionally, I will address how President-elect Trump’s nomination of Jay Clayton may change the SEC’s FCPA enforcement priorities from pursuing companies to pursuing individuals, and how that will change corporate investigations. If you’re in Miami on Friday the 13th and Saturday the 14th, please consider attending the conference.
January 13, 2017 in Behavioral Economics, Compliance, Conferences, Corporate Governance, Corporations, Current Affairs, Ethics, International Business, Marcia Narine Weldon, Securities Regulation | Permalink | Comments (0)
Thursday, January 5, 2017
As regular readers of this blog know, I am skeptical of many disclosure regimes, particularly those related to conflict minerals. I am, however, a fan of the Sustainability Accounting Standard Board’s (SASB's) efforts to streamline the disclosure process and provide industry-specific metrics that tie into accepted definitions of materiality.
Dr. Jean Rogers, the CEO and Founder of SASB, presented at the Association of American Law Schools yesterday with other panelists discussing the pros and cons of environmental, social, and governance disclosures. To prove SASB’s case that investors care about sustainability, Dr. Rogers noted that in 2016, sustainable investment strategies came into play in one out of every five dollars under professional management. She cited a number of key sustainability initiatives that investors considered including the United Nations Principles for Responsible Investments ($59 trillion AUM), the Carbon Disclosure Project ($95 trillion AUM), the International Corporate Governance Network ($26 trillion AUM), and the Investor Network on Climate Risk ($13 trillion AUM).
Despite this interest, SASB argues, investors lack information that equips them with an apples to apples comparison on material information related to sustainability. What might be material in the beverage industry such as water usage for example, may not be material in another industry.
Dr. Rogers cited a 2014 PwC study reporting that 89% of global institutional investors request sustainability information directly from companies, 67% are more likely to consider ESG information if it is based on a common framework or standard, and 50% are “very likely” to sponsor or co-sponsor a shareholder proposal.
Many who criticize the disclosure regime talk about disclosure overload and challenge the assumptions that investors care as much about sustainability as they care about earnings per share. On the flip side, companies experience what SASB acknowledges is “questionnaire fatigue.” GE for example, indicated that 75 people took months to answer 650 questionnaires with no value to the customers, shareholders, or the environment.
SASB is an independent 501(c)(3) with a who’s who of heavy hitters on the board, including Michael Bloomberg, former SEC Chair Mary Schapiro, the CEO of CalSTRS, and the former Chair of the FASB, among others. The organization first started this initiative in 2011 right after I left in-house life, and I remember thinking that this was an idea whose time has come. Over the years, SASB has worked to develop specific standards for 79 industries in 10 sectors to be used in Form 10-K and 20-F. Although it is a voluntary process, the goal is to allow investors to look at peers across an industry with standards that those industries have helped to develop.The SASB standards integrate into MD & As and risk factors without the requirement of any new regulation.
Some criticize SASB’s mission and fear more disclosure could lead to more lawsuits from investors or consumers. I don’t share this fear, but companies such as Nestle have been sued for fraud and other state law claims after disclosure required under the California Transparency in Supply Chain Act.
I’m a fan of SASB’s work so far. I hope that more organizations and advocacy groups continue to provide constructive feedback. Eventually, using the SASB methodology should become an industry standard that provides value to both investors and the company. Take a look at their 2016 State of Disclosure Report for more information and to find out how you can contribute to the effort.
Tuesday, January 3, 2017
Today is my annual check-up on the use of "limited liability corporation" in place of the correct “limited liability company.” I did a similar review last year about this time, and revisiting the same search led to remarkable consistency. This is disappointing in that I am hoping for improvement, but at least it is not getting notably worse.
Since January 1, 2016, Westlaw reports the following using the phrase "limited liability corporation":
- Cases: 363 (last year was 381)
- Trial Court Orders: 99 (last year was 93)
- Administrative Decisions & Guidance: 172 (last year was 169)
- Secondary Sources: 1116 (last year was 1071)
- Proposed & Enacted Legislation: 148 (last year was 169)
As was the case last year, I am most distressed by the legislative uses of the phrase, because codifying the use of "limited liability corporation" makes this situation far murkier than a court making the mistake in a particular application.
New York, for example, passed the following legislation:
Section 1. Subject to the provisions of this act, the commissioner of parks and recreation of the city of New York is hereby authorized to enter into an agreement with the Kids' Powerhouse Discovery Center Limited Liability Corporation for the maintenance and operation of a children's program known as the Bronx Children's Museum on the second floor of building J, as such building is presently constructed and situated, in Mill Pond Park in the borough of the Bronx. The terms of the agreement may allow the placement of signs identifying the museum.
NY LEGIS 168 (2016), 2016 Sess. Law News of N.Y. Ch. 168 (S. 5859-B) (McKINNEY'S).
This creates a bit of a problem, as Kids' Powerhouse Discovery Center Limited Liability Corporation does not exist. The official name of the entity is as Kids' Powerhouse Discovery Center LLC and it is, according to state records, an LLC (not a corporation). Does this mean the LLC will have to re-form as a corporation so that the commissioner of parks and recreation has authority to act? It would seem so. On the one hand, it could be deemed an oversight, but New York law, like other states, makes clear that an LLC and a corporation are distinct entities.
Several other states enacted legislation using “limited liability corporation” in contexts that clearly intended to mean LLCs. Hawaii, West Virginia (sigh), Minnesota, Alabama, California, and Rhode Island were also culprits.
There was one bit of federal legislation, too. The “Communities Helping Invest through Property and Improvements Needed for Veterans Act of 2016” or the “CHIP IN for Vets Act of 2016." PL 114-294, December 16, 2016, 130 Stat. 1504. This act authorizes the Secretary of Veterans Affairs to carry out a pilot program in which donations of certain property (real and facility construction) donated by the following entities:
(A) A State or local authority.
(B) An organization that is described in section 501(c)(3) of the Internal Revenue Code of 1986 and is exempt from taxation under section 501(a) of such Code.
(C) A limited liability corporation.
(D) A private entity.
(E) A donor or donor group.
(F) Any other non-Federal Government entity.
I have to admit, it is not at all clear to me why one needs any version of (C) if one has (D) as an option. Nonetheless, to the extent it was not intended to be redundant of (D), part (C) would appear to be incorrect.
I addition, I'd be remiss not to note the increase to 1116 uses in secondary sources last year, though only 43 were in law reviews and journals. That part is, at least a little, encouraging.
Last year, I wished “everyone a happy and healthy New Year that is entirely free of LLCs being called ‘limited liability corporations.’” This year, I have learned to temper my expectations. I still wish everyone a happy and healthy New Year, but as to the use of “limited liability corporations” I am hoping to reduce the uses by half in all settings for 2017, and I hope at least three legislatures will fix errors in their existing statutes. That seems more reasonable, if not any more likely.
Tuesday, December 27, 2016
New Book from Martin & Kunz: When the Levees Break: Re-visioning Regulation of the Securities Markets
My friend and colleague, Jena Martin's coauthored book (which she wrote with another West Virginia University professor Karen Kunz) has just been released: When the Levees Break: Re-visioning Regulation of the Securities Markets. I have just started the book, and I look forward to working my way through it. I cannot say Prof. Martin and I always see eye to eye on things (though we often do), she always has a thoughtful and interesting take. It's been an interesting read so far, and I recommend taking a look. Following is a synopsis of the book:
The stock markets. Whether you invest or not, the workings of the stock market almost certainly touch your life. Either through your retirement fund, your mutual fund or just because you work for a place that invests (or is invested in)—the reach of the securities markets is expanding, like an ever growing tidal wave.
This book discusses what happens when that wave hits the shore. Specifically, this book argues that, given the mounting deluge from misplaced regulation, fast-paced technology, and dominant financial players, the current US regulatory structure is woefully inadequate to hold back the tide.
Using vivid imagery and plain language, Karen Kunz and Jena Martin take the problems involved in regulating the complex world of securities head on. Examining everything from the rise of technology and the role of hedge funds to our bloated agency system, Kunz and Martin argue that the current structure is doomed to fail and, when it does, the consequences will be disastrous.
Sending out a call to action, the authors also offer a bold vision for how to fix the mess we’ve made—not by tinkering around the edges—but instead by building a whole new structure, one that can withstand the next storm that is sure to come.
Wednesday, December 21, 2016
In July, Delaware Chancellor Andre Bouchard found that payday lender DFC Global Corp was sold too cheaply to private equity firm Lone Star Funds in 2014. Chancellor Bouchard held that four DFC shareholders were entitled to $10.21 a share at the time of the deal, or about 7 percent above the $9.50 per share deal price that was approved by a majority of DFC shareholders.
A Gibson Dunn filing related to the DFC case on appeal before the Delaware Supreme Court sheds light on the appraisal process in Delaware. The claim is the Chancellor Bouchard manipulated the calculations to reach the $10.21 prices. The full brief is available here, but this summary might provide easier reading. Reuters reports:
Bouchard made a single clerical error that led him to peg DFC’s fair value at $10.21 per share.
DFC’s lawyers at Gibson Dunn & Crutcher spotted the mistake and asked Chancellor Bouchard to fix the erroneous input. If he did, the firm said, he’d come up with a fair value for the company that was actually lower than the price Lone Star paid. The chancellor agreed to recalculate – but in addition to fixing the mistaken input, Bouchard adjusted DFC’s projected long-term growth rate way up, to a number even higher than the top of the range proposed by the plaintiffs’ expert. The offsetting changes brought the recalculated valuation back in line with Chancellor Bouchard’s original, mistaken analysis.
Gibson Dunn is now arguing at the Delaware Supreme Court that the chancellor’s tinkering shows just why appraisal litigation – in which shareholders dissatisfied with buyout prices ask Chancery Court to come up with a fair price for their stock – has become a big problem for companies trying to sell themselves.
Last week The Chancery Daily reported on a December 16th appraisal case, Merion Capital, where Chancellor Laster held that a fair price was paid. The questions remains what is the significance of deal price and what is the significance of expert opinion shifting these technical cases in or outside of fair value?
Monday, December 19, 2016
In her post on Saturday, co-blogger Ann Lipton offered observations about possible legal issues resulting from the President-Elect's tweets regarding public companies. She ends her post with the following:
So, it's all a bit unsettled. Let's just say these and other novel legal questions regarding the Trump administration are sure to provide endless fodder for academic analysis in the coming years.
Today, I take on a somewhat related topic. I briefly explore the President-Elect's conflicting interests through the lens of a corporate law advisor. For the past few weeks, the media (see, e.g., here and here and here) and many folks I know have been concerned about the potential for conflict between the President-Elect's role as the POTUS, public investor and leader of the United States, and his role as "The Donald," private investor and leader of the Trump corporate empire.
The existence of a conflicting interest in an action or transaction is not, in and of itself, fatal or even necessarily problematic. In a number of common situations, fiduciaries have interests in both sides of a transaction. For example, a business founder who serves as a corporate director and officer may lease property she owns to the corporation. What matters under corporate law is whether the fiduciary's participation in the transaction on both sides results in a deal made in a fully informed manner, in good faith, and in the bests interests of the corporation. Conflicting interests raise a concern that the fiduciary is or may be acting for the benefit of himself, rather than for and in the best interest of the corporation.
Corporate law generally provides several possible ways to overcome concerns that a fiduciary has breached her duty because of a conflicting interest in a particular action or transaction:
- through good faith, fully informed approval of the action or transaction (e.g., after disclosure of information about the nature and extent of the conflicts) by either the corporation's shareholders or members of the board of directors who are not interested in the transaction; and
- through approval of a transaction that is entirely fair--fair as to process and price.
See, e.g., Delaware General Corporation Law Section 144. Yet, if I believe what I read, no similar processes exist to combat concerns about actions or transactions in which the POTUS has or may have conflicting interests. In particular, to the extent one does not already exist, should a disinterested body of monitors be identified or constituted to receive information about actual and potential conflicting interests of the POTUS and approve the action or transaction involving the conflicting interests? Perhaps the Office of Government Ethics ("OGE") already has something like this in place . . . . If it does, then both the public media and I are underinformed about it. While there seems to be OGE guidance on the President-Elect's nominees for executive branch posts (see, e.g., here and here) and on overall executive branch standards of conduct (see here), I have not found or read about anything applicable to the President-Elect or POTUS.
In making these observations, I recognize that our federal government is different in important ways from the corporation. I also understand that the leadership of a country/nation is different from the leadership of a corporation. Having said that, however, conflicting interests can have similar deleterious effects in both settings. The analogy I raise here and this overall line of inquiry may be worth some more thought . . . .
Thursday, December 15, 2016
This post is not about politics, although it does concern President-elect Trump's cabinet pick, ExxonMobil head, Rex Tillerson. I first learned about Tillerson during some research on business and human rights in the extractive industries in 2012. I read the excellent book, "Private Empire" by Pultizer-prize winner Steve Coll to get insight into what I believe is the most powerful company in the world.
Although Coll spent most of his time talking about Tillerson's predecessor, Lee Raymond, the book did a great job of describing the company's world view on climate change, litigation tactics, and diplomatic relations. Coll writes, “Exxon’s far flung interests were at times distinct from Washington’s.” The CEO “did not manage the corporation as a subordinate instrument of American foreign policy; his was a private empire.” Raymond even boasted, “I am not a U.S. company and I don’t make decisions based on what’s good for the U.S.” Indeed, the book describes how ExxonMobil navigated through Indonesian guerilla warfare, dealt with kleptocrats in Africa, and deftly negotiated with Vladmir Putin and Hugo Chavez.
Before I read the book, I knew that big business was powerful--after all I used to work for a Fortune 500 company. But Coll's work described a company that was in some instances more influential to world leaders than the UN, the US State Department, or the World Bank. I don't know if Trump has read the book, but no doubt he knows about the reach of Tillerson's power. I won't comment about whether this pick is good for the country. I will say that this choice is not outrageous or even surprising given Trump's stated view of what he wants for America. The key will be for Tillerson, if he's confirmed, to use the skills he has honed working for ExxonMobil for the country.
If you have time after grading for a really good read (it's a fast 700 pages), pick up the book. Coll's view on the Tillerson nomination is available here.
Wednesday, December 14, 2016
UC Irvine law professor, David Min, has a new article titled, Corporate Political Activity and Non-Shareholder Agency Costs, in theYale Journal on Regulation. Professor Min examines corporate constitutional law in recent examples such as Citizens United, through the lens of nonshareholder dissenters.
The courts have never considered the problem of dissenting nonshareholders in assessing regulatory restrictions on corporate political activity. This Article argues that they should. It is the first to explore the potential agency costs that corporate political activity creates for nonshareholders, and in so doing, it lays out two main arguments. First, these agency costs may be significant, as I illustrate through several case studies. Second, neither corporate law nor private ordering provides solutions to this agency problem. Indeed, because the theoretical arguments for shareholder primacy in corporate law are largely inapplicable for corporate political activity, corporate law may actually serve to exacerbate the agency problems that such activity creates for non-shareholders. Private ordering, which could take the form of contractual covenants restricting corporate political activity, also seems unlikely to solve this problem, due to the large economic frictions facing such covenants. These findings have potentially significant ramifications for the Court’s corporate political speech jurisprudence, particularly as laid out in Bellotti and Citizens United. One logical conclusion is that these decisions, regardless of their constitutional merit, make for very bad public policy, insofar as they preempt much-needed regulatory solutions for reducing non-shareholder agency costs, and thus may have the effect of inhibiting efficient corporate ordering and capital formation. Another outgrowth of this analysis is that nonshareholder agency costs may provide an important rationale for government regulation of corporate political activity.
In examining corporate political activity, Professor Min, expertly blends and connects agency theory to corporate theories of the firm. He rebuts traditional arguments against nonshareholder constituents such as residual interest holders (shareholders), the role of private ordering and provides 3 detailed case studies illustrating the costs of CPA on nonshareholder constituents. Among the proposals and options explored to mitigate these agency costs, Professor Min suggests that the existence of agency costs to nonshareholders--an area heretofore unexamined in corporate law--could justify a regulatory intervention.
Friday, December 9, 2016
Below are some resources related to the integration of faith and work stemming from businesses or business people.
- Acton Institute
- C12 Group
- Christian Legal Society
- Institute for Faith, Work, and Economics
- Jobs for Life
- Faith and Art - Vito Auito
- Vocation is Integral - Steven Garber
- Faith & Work Summit - Troy Tomlinson and Bill Lee
Books and Articles
- Vocation Needs No Justification - Steven Garber
- Faith and Fortune - Marc Gunther
- Why Work - Dorothy Sayers
- Redeeming Law - Michael Schutt
Thursday, December 8, 2016
A friend of mine is considering teaching his constitutional law seminar based almost entirely on current and future decisions by the President-elect. I would love to take that class. I thought of that when I saw this article about Mr. Trump’s creative use of Delaware LLCs for real estate and aircraft. Here in South Florida, we have a number of very wealthy residents, and my Business Associations students could value from learning about this real-life entity selection/jurisdictional exercise. Alas, I probably can’t squeeze a whole course out of his business interests. However, I am sure that using some examples from the headlines related to Trump and many of his appointees for key regulatory agencies will help bring some of the material to life.