Tuesday, October 17, 2017

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Friday, October 13, 2017

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, October 11, 2017

Do We Need Universal Proxies?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Friday, October 6, 2017

Stonyfield's Struggles and Successes as a Social Business

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, October 5, 2017

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

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

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

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

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

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

This view contradicted the employers' opening statement that:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

Wednesday, October 4, 2017

Revising How to Handle Derivative Claims (or Not)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, September 26, 2017

Courts Determined to Confuse Everyone about LLCs

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, September 20, 2017

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, September 19, 2017

The Magical LLC, Part 1

A recent New Republic article states: 

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

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

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

So many questions, so few answers. 

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

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

Thursday, August 31, 2017

Does Uber Need to Learn from Walmart about the FCPA?

Uber has a new CEO. Perhaps his first task should be to require one of his legal or compliance staff to attend the FCPA conference at Texas A & M in October given the new reports of an alleged DOJ investigation.. I might have some advice, but Uber needs to hear the lessons learned from Walmart, who will be sending its Chief Compliance Officer. Thanks to FCPA expert, Mike Koehler, aka the FCPA Professor, for inviting me. Mike has done some great blogging about the Walmart case (FYI- the company has reported spending $865 million on fees related to the FCPA and compliance-related costs). Details are below:

 

THE F​CPA TURNS 40:
AN ASSESSMENT OF FCPA ENFORCEMENT POLICIES AND PROCEDURES

FCPA ConferenceThursday, October 12, 2017
Texas A&M University School of Law
Fort Worth, Texas

This conference brings together Foreign Corrupt Practices Act enforcement officials, experienced FCPA practitioners, and leading FCPA academics and scholars to discuss the many legal and policy issues relevant to the current FCPA enforcement and compliance landscape.

Register here

AGENDA

[Click here to download agenda pdf]

Registration, 8:30 a.m.

Morning Session, 9:00 a.m. to Noon

FCPA Legal and Policy Issues

  • Daniel Chow, Professor, Ohio State School of Law
    China’s Crackdown on Government Corruption and the FCPA
  • Mike Koehler, Professor, Southern Illinois School of Law
    Has the FCPA Been Successful In Achieving Its Objectives?
  • Peter Reilly, Associate Professor, Texas A&M School of Law
    The Fokker Circuit Court Opinion and Deferred Prosecution of FCPA Matters
  • Juliet Sorensen, Professor, Northwestern School of Law
    The Phenomenon of an Outsize Number of Male Defendants Charged with Federal Crimes of Corruption
  • Marcia Narine Weldon, Professor, Univ. of Miami School of Law
    What the U.S. Can Learn from Enforcement in Other Jurisdictions and What Other Jurisdictions Can Learn from Us

Luncheon, Noon to 1:00 p.m.

Afternoon Session, 1:00 to 3:00 p.m.

FCPA Conference JorgensenKeynote address

(1:00 to 2:00 p.m.)

  • Jay Jorgensen
    Executive Vice President, Global Chief Ethics and Compliance Officer, Walmart

Follow-up panel (2:00 to 3:00 p.m.):

FCPA Enforcement and Compliance Landscape: Past, Present, and Future

  • Kit Addleman, Attorney, Haynes and Boone LLP, Dallas and Fort Worth Offices
  • Jason Lewis, Attorney, Greenberg Traurig LLP, Dallas Office

CLE Credit for Attendees

All attendees are eligible for ​​5 hours of CLE credit. The morning session offers ​3 CLE credits. The afternoon session offers 2 CLE credits, one of which will be an Ethics credit. Forms will be provided to attendees at the conference. CLE ​credit is free for all attendees.
 
 
 

August 31, 2017 in Compliance, Conferences, Corporate Governance, Corporations, Current Affairs, Ethics, Marcia Narine Weldon, White Collar Crime | Permalink | Comments (0)

Tuesday, August 29, 2017

More Corporate LLCs and Phantom Veil Piercing

And so it continues:

In a recent case in the United States District Court, District of Columbia, a court messes up the entity (referring to one of the parties as “Howard Town Center Developer, LLC, is a limited liability corporation (‘LLC’)") and also does a fine job of improperly stating (or really, failing to state) the law for veil piercing. 

I took the initiative to pull the initial complaint and the answer to see if either of the parties were responsible for calling the LLC a corporation. Both sides properly referred to the LLC as a “limited liability company,” so it appears the corporation reference is a court-created issue.

In the case, a property developer brought action to require a university landowner to reinstate a ground lease and development agreement between developer and university, after the university sent notices of termination. The University counterclaimed to recover unpaid rent. The court determined, among other things, that the university was entitled to the damages it sought of $1,475,000 for unpaid rents and to attorney fees related to the developer's breach of a ground lease and development agreement. But the opinion doesn’t stop there.

It is quite clear that the developer LLC does not have the funds to pay the judgment, so the question of whether the LLC’s veil could be pierced was also raised.  The court, I think properly, determined that “a targeted asset or individual must be named before veil-piercing may be considered.” Howard Town Ctr. Developer, LLC v. Howard U., CV 1075 (BAH), 2017 WL 3493081, at *56 (D.D.C. Aug. 14, 2017). The court continued: “The University should not lament, nor the Developer celebrate, that conclusion, however, on the erroneous assumption that the University has waived its right to veil-piercing in this matter.” Id.  

The court then determined that, because of “considerations of justice and equity,” the university could later seek a veil-piercing action if it were unable to satisfy its judgment. “Any such action will be fairly straightforward given the instant decision, including the Court's observations regarding the inadequacy of the Developer's capitalization . . . and the University may then be entitled to the additional discovery it presently seeks.” Id.

 Wow.  That’s some heavy dicta.  First, the court never states what the rule is for veil piercing an LLC, so it is a pretty bold assertion to say veil-piercing will be “straightforward.” Is the sole test adequate capitalization? What does that mean?  And what is that test? Well, the court gives us an explanation in footnote 22:

The Developer's status as an inadequately capitalized shell company is an ongoing demonstration of bad faith. LLCs are a legitimate corporate form, and the societal benefits of such entities are significant. Dickson testified that the use of such entities in transactions like this one is “typical[ ],” explaining that “single-asset entities are established as borrowers” so that “the borrower[ ] contains one asset,” the advantage from a “liability standpoint” being that “on a transaction of this size, the asset couldn't be pulled into bankruptcy.” Trial Tr. Day 7 AM at 49:25–50:7. Yet, even a single-asset entity must be capitalized to the extent necessary to satisfy its obligations to the project it was created to support. See Lawlor v. District of Columbia, 758 A.2d 964, 975 (D.C. 2000) (noting inadequate capitalization as factor in determining whether a given entity's corporate form should be respected). Consequently, abuse of the corporate form to render a company judgment-proof is impermissible and reflects bad faith.

Um, no.  First, the LLC is not a corporate form. And an entity not being able to pay its debts is not, in and of itself, a showing of bad faith.  Otherwise, what’s the point of limited liability? The court seems to think that being judgment proof because of a lack of funds is not allowed. But it is specifically allowed. If there is fraud or deception, that is not allowed. But an inability to pay the bills is not, alone, at all improper.  It is unfortunate, and perhaps awful, but it is not improper. 

Ultimately, it may be that veil piercing could be justified under DC law, but first, we’d need to know what that law is.  And it should be clear that it is LLC-veil-piercing law that is to be applied, and not the “corporate” veil piercing this court has apparently relied upon.  Once again, I will repeat my call for courts to state specifically the law (and the test) they are applying in LLC-veil-piercing cases, explain why the factors of the test are appropriate in the LLC setting, and then apply that test. 

Instead, the court suggests that veil piercing is essentially inevitable, which could have a strong role in forcing a settlement. This language amounts to phantom veil piercing.  The court never stated a veil-piercing test, never ran the test, and yet, there it is: the specter of a pierced limited liability veil. 

The court seemed frustrated with the developer, and that may be well founded.  Maybe the developer committed fraud. Maybe the developer and other representatives made binding promises that should make them all guarantors. The case also suggests that there may be an argument for enterprise liability among some of the entities mentioned.  And those are all issues that should have been considered.  But none of them are veil piercing claims, and if the court is going to go down that road, the court needs to be more precise to ensure justice and equity prevail.  

August 29, 2017 in Corporations, Joshua P. Fershee, Lawyering, LLCs | Permalink | Comments (1)

Wednesday, August 16, 2017

The CEOs of Corporate America vs. The CEO of America

Business leaders probably didn’t think the honeymoon would be over so fast. A CEO as President, a deregulation czar, billionaires in the cabinet- what could possibly go wrong?

When Ken Frazier, CEO of Merck, resigned from one of the President’s business advisory councils because he didn’t believe that President Trump had responded appropriately to the tragic events in Charlottesville, I really didn’t think it would have much of an impact. I had originally planned to blog about How (Not) To Teach a Class on Startups, and I will next week (unless there is other breaking news). But yesterday, I decided to blog about Frazier, and to connect his actions to a talk I gave to UM law students at orientation last week about how CEOs talk about corporate responsibility but it doesn’t always make a difference. I started drafting this post questioning how many people would actually run to their doctors asking to switch their medications to or from Merck products because of Frazier’s stance on Charlottesville. Then I thought perhaps, Frazier’s stance would have a bigger impact on the millennial employees who will make up almost 50% of the employee base in the next few years. Maybe he would get a standing ovation at the next shareholder meeting. Maybe he would get some recognition other than an angry tweet from the President and lots of news coverage.

By yesterday afternoon, Under Armour’s CEO had also stepped down from the President’s business advisory council. That made my draft post a little more interesting. Would those customers care more or less about the CEO's position? By this morning, still more CEOs chose to leave the council after President Trump’s lengthy and surprising press conference yesterday. By that time, the media and politicians of all stripes had excoriated the President. This afternoon, the President disbanded his two advisory councils after a call organized by the CEO of Blackstone with his peers to discuss whether to proceed. Although Trump “disbanded” the councils, they had already decided to dissolve earlier in the day.

I’m not teaching Business Associations this semester, but this is a teachable moment, and not just for Con Law professors. What are the corporate governance implications? Should the CEOs have stayed on these advisory councils so that they could advise this CEO President on much needed tax, health care, immigration, infrastructure, trade, investment, and other reform or do Trump’s personal and political views make that impossible? Many of the CEOs who originally stayed on the councils believed that they could do more for the country and their shareholders by working with the President. Did the CEOs who originally resigned do the right thing for their conscience but the wrong thing by their shareholders? Did those who stayed send the wrong message to their employees  in light of the Google diversity controversy? Did they think about the temperament of their board members or of the shareholder proposals that they had received in the past or that they were expecting when thinking about whether to stay or go? 

Many professors avoid politics in business classes, and that’s understandable because there are enough issues with coverage and these are sensitive issues. But if you do plan to address them, please comment below or send an email to mweldon@law.miami.edu.

August 16, 2017 in Business Associations, Corporate Governance, Corporate Personality, Corporations, CSR, Current Affairs, Ethics, Law School, Marcia Narine Weldon, Shareholders, Teaching | Permalink | Comments (1)

Tuesday, August 15, 2017

Poor LLC Language Leads to Poor LLC Doctrine (And Unnecessary Veil Piercing)

Earlier this week, Professor Bainbridge posted California court completely bollixes up business law nomenclature, discussing Keith Paul Bishop's post on Curci Investments, LLC v. Baldwin, Cal. Ct. App. Case No. G052764 (Aug. 10, 2017).  The good professor, noting (with approval) what he calls my possibly "Ahabian" obsession with courts and their LLC references, says that "misusing terminology leads to misapplied doctrine."  Darn right.

To illustrate his point, let's discuss a 2016 Colorado case that manages to highlight how both Colorado and Utah have it wrong. As is so often the case, the decision turns on incorrectly merging doctrine from one entity type (the corporation) into another (the LLC) without acknowledging or explaining why that makes sense.  To the court's credit, they got the choice of law right, applying the internal affairs doctrine to use Utah law for veil piercing a Utah LLC, even though the case was in a Colorado court. 

After correctly deciding to use Utah law, the court then went down a doctrinally weak path.  Here we go:

Marquis is a Utah LLC. (ECF No. 1 ¶ 7.) Utah courts apply traditional corporate veil-piercing principles to LLCs. See, e.g., Lodges at Bear Hollow Condo. Homeowners Ass'n, Inc. v. Bear Hollow Restoration, LLC, 344 P.3d 145, 150 (Utah Ct. App. 2015). The basic veil-piercing analysis requires two steps:
The first part of the test, often called the formalities requirement, requires the movant to show such unity of interest and ownership that the separate personalities of the corporation and the individual no longer exist. The second part of the test, often called the fairness requirement, requires the movant to show that observance of the corporate form would sanction a fraud, promote injustice, or condone an inequitable result.
Jones v. Marquis Properties, LLC, 212 F. Supp. 3d 1010, 1021 (D. Colo. 2016). 
 
First, say it with me: You Can’t Pierce the Corporate Veil of an LLC Because It Doesn't Have One.  Second, the so-called "the formalities requirement" is a problem for Utah LLCs if one looks at the Utah LLC Act. The Colorado court does not do that, and neither does the Utah court that decided Bear Hollow Restoration, upon which Colorado relied.  They should have. You see, Utah has adopted the Revised Uniform Limited Liability Act, and the Utah version states expressly: 
The failure of a limited liability company to observe formalities relating to the exercise of its powers or management of its activities and affairs is not a ground for imposing liability on a member or manager of the limited liability company for a debt, obligation, or other liability of the limited liability company.
Utah Code Ann. § 48-3a-304(b). So, that is at least potentially a problem, because the Utah test for the formalities requirement is supposed to be determined by looking at seven factors:
(1) undercapitalization of a one-[person] corporation; (2) failure to observe corporate formalities; (3) nonpayment of dividends; (4) siphoning of corporate funds by the dominant stockholder; (5) nonfunctioning of other officers or directors; (6) absence of corporate records; [and] (7) the use of the corporation as a facade for operations of the dominant stockholder or stockholders....
Lodges at Bear Hollow Condo. Homeowners Ass'n, Inc. v. Bear Hollow Restoration, LLC, 344 P.3d 145, 150 (Utah App. 2015).
 
I know some will argue I am being overly formalistic in highlighting how corporate focused these factors are, but this is problematic.  Virtually all of these factors must, at a minimum, be contorted to apply to LLCs.  If the test is going to be applied, the least a court should do is to rewrite the test so it refers LLCs specifically.  Why? Well, primarily because in doing so, it would make clear just how silly these factors are when trying to do so.  (For example, LLCs don't have stockholders, corporate funds, dividends, and generally don't have an obligation to have officers or directors.) 

 The Marquis Properties court skips actually applying the test saying simply that an SEC investigation report was sufficient to allow veil piercing. The court determined that an SEC report establishes that sole member of the LLC used the entity "to create the illusion of profitable investments and thereby to enrich himself, with no ability or intent to honor" the LLC's obligations. "Given this, strictly respecting [the LLC's] corporate form [ed. note: UGH] would sanction [the member's] fraud."  The Court then found that veil-piercing was appropriate to hold the member "jointly and severally liable for the amounts owed by" the LLC to the plaintiffs.

But veil piercing is both neither appropriate nor necessary in this case.  In discussing the SEC report earlier in the case, the court found that "all elements of mail and wire fraud are present." I see nothing that would absolve either the LLC as an entity of liability for the fraud and I see no reason why the member of the LLC would not be personally liable for the fraud he committed purportedly on behalf of the LLC and for his own benefit.  

This case illustrates another problem with veil piercing: both courts and lawyers are too willing to jump to veil piercing when simple fraud will do. This case illustrates clearly that fraud was evident, and fraud should be sufficient grounds for the plaintiffs to recover from the individual committing fraud. That means the entire veil piercing discussion should be treated as dicta. The entity form did not create this problem, and the entity form does not need to be disregarded, at least as far as I can tell, to allow plaintiffs to recover fully.  Before even considering veil piercing, a court should be able to state clearly why veil piercing is necessary to make the plaintiff whole. Otherwise, you end up with bad case law that can lead to bad doctrine, which leads to inefficient courts and markets.  

Oh, and while I'm at it, Westlaw needs to get their act together, too.  The Westlaw summary and headnotes say "limited liability corporation (LLC)" five times in connection with this case.  Come on, y'all.  

 

August 15, 2017 in Business Associations, Corporations, Joshua P. Fershee, Lawyering, LLCs, Shareholders, Unincorporated Entities | Permalink | Comments (0)

Wednesday, August 2, 2017

How (Not) To Teach A Course in Compliance and Corporate Social Responsibility

Good morning from gorgeous Belize. I hope to see some of you this weekend at SEALS. A couple of weeks ago, I posted about the compliance course I recently taught. I received quite a few emails asking for my syllabus and teaching materials. I am still in the middle of grading but I thought I would provide some general advice for those who are considering teaching a similar course. I taught thinking about the priorities of current employers and the skills our students need.

1) Picking materials is hard- It's actually harder if you have actually worked in compliance, as I have, and still consult, as I do from time to time. I have all of the current compliance textbooks but didn't find any that suited my needs. Shameless plug- I'm co-authoring a compliance textbook to help fill the gap. I wanted my students to have the experience they would have if they were working in-house and had to work with real documents.  I found myself either using or getting ideas from many primary source materials from the Society of Corporate Compliance and Ethics, the  Institute of Privacy ProfessionalsDLA Piper, the Federal Sentencing Guidelines for Organizational Defendants, policy statements from various governmental entities in the US (the SEC, DOJ Banamex case, and state regulators), and abroad (UK Serious Frauds Office and Privacy Office). Students also compared CSR reports, looked at NGO materials, read the codes of conducts of the guest speakers who came in, and looked at 10-Ks, the Carbon Disclosure Project, and other climate change documents for their companies. I also had students watch YouTube videos pretending that they went to CLEs and had to write a memo to the General Counsel so that s/he could update the board on the latest developments in healthcare compliance and risk assessments. 

2) This should be a 3-credit course for it to be an effective skills course- My grand vision was for guest speakers to come in on Mondays  for an hour and then I would lecture for the remaining time or I would lecture for two hours on Monday and then students would have simulations on Wednesday.This never happened. Students became so engaged that the lecturers never finished in an hour. We were always behind. Simulations always ran over. 

3) Don't give too much reading- I should have known better. I have now taught at three institutions at various tiers and at each one students have admitted- no, actually bragged- that they don't do the reading. Some have told me that they do the reading for my classes because I grade for class participation, but I could actually see for my compliance course how they could do reasonably well without doing all of the reading, which means that I gave too much. I actually deliberately provided more than they needed in some areas (especially in the data privacy area) because I wanted them to build a library in case they obtained an internship or job after graduation and could use the resources. When I started out in compliance, just knowing where to look was half the battle. My students have 50 state surveys in employment law, privacy and other areas that will at least give them a head start.

4) Grading is hard- Grading a skills course is inherently subjective and requires substantive feedback to be effective.  40% of the grade is based on a class project, which was either a presentation to the board of directors or a training to a group of employees. Students had their choice of topic and audience but had to stay within their industry and had the entire 6-week term to prepare. Should I give more credit to the team who trained the sales force on off-label marketing for pharmaceuticals because the class acting as the sales force (and I) were deliberately disrespectful (as some sales people would be in real life because this type of  training would likely limit their commissions)? This made their training harder. Should I be tougher on the group that trained  the bored board on AML, since one student presenter was in banking for years? I already know the answers to these rhetorical questions. On individual projects, I provide comments as though I am a general counsel, a board member, or a CEO depending on the assignment. This may mean that the commentary is "why should I care, tell me about the ROI up front." This is not language that law students are used to, but it's language that I have tried to instill throughout the course. I gave them various versions of the speech, "give me less kumbaya, we need to care about the slave labor in the factories, and less consumers care about company reputation, and more statistics and hard numbers to back it up."  Some of you may have seen this recent article about United and the "non-boycott, which validates what I have been blogging about for years. If it had come out during the class, I would have made students read it because board members would have read it and real life compliance officers would have had to deal with it head on.

5) Be current but know when to stop- I love compliance and CSR. For the students, it's just a class although I hope they now love it too. I found myself printing out new materials right before class because I thought they should see this latest development. I'm sure that  what made me think of myself as cutting edge and of the moment made me come across to them as scattered and disorganized because it wasn't on the syllabus.

6) Use guest speakers whenever possible- Skype them in if you have to. Nothing gives you credibility like having someone else say exactly what you have already said.

If you have any questions, let me know. I will eventually get back to those of you who asked for materials, but hopefully some of these links will help. If you are teaching a course or looking at textbook, send me feedback on them so that I can consider it as I work on my own. Please email me at mweldon@law.miami.edu.

Next week, I will blog about how (not) to teach a class on legal issues for start ups, entrepreneurs, and small businesses, which I taught last semester.

August 2, 2017 in Compliance, Corporate Governance, Corporations, CSR, Current Affairs, Employment Law, Human Rights, Law School, Lawyering, Marcia Narine Weldon, Teaching | Permalink | Comments (0)

Tuesday, August 1, 2017

More on Corporations, Accountability, and the Proper Locus of Power

My colleague, Joan Heminway, yesterday posted Democratic Norms and the Corporation: The Core Notion of Accountability. She raises some interesting points (as usual), and she argues: "In my view, more work can be done in corporate legal scholarship to push on the importance of accountability as a corporate norm and explore further analogies between political accountability and corporate accountability."

I have not done a lot of reading in this area, but I am inclined to agree that it seems like an area that warrants more discussion and research.  The post opens with some thought-provoking writing by Daniel Greenwood, including this:  

Most fundamentally, corporate law and our major business corporations treat the people most analogous to the governed, those most concerned with corporate decisions, as mere helots. Employees in the American corporate law system have no political rights at all—not only no vote, but not even virtual representation in the boardroom legislature.
Joan correctly observes, "Whether you agree with Daniel or not on the substance, his views are transparent and his belief and energy are palpable." Although I admit I have not spent a lot of time with his writing, but my initial take is that I do not agree with his premise. That is, employees do have political rights, and they have them where they belong: in local, state, and federal elections.  Employees, in most instances, do not have political rights within their employment at all.  Whether you work for the government, a nonprofit, or a small sole proprietorship, you don't generally have political rights as to your employment.  You may have some say in an employee-owned entity, and you may have some votes via union membership, but even there, those votes aren't really as to your employment specifically. 
 
The idea of seeking democratic norms via the corporate entity itself strikes me as flawed.  If people don't like how corporations (or other entities) operate, then it would seem to me the political process can solve that via appropriate legislation or regulation. That is, make laws that allow entities to do more social good if they are so inclined. Or even require entities to do so, if that's the will of the people (this is not a recommendation, merely an observation).  Scholars like Greenwood and others continue to make assertions that entities cannot make socially responsible choices. He states, " The law bars [corporations], in the absence of unanimous consent, from making fundamental value choices, for example, from balancing the pursuit of profit against other potential corporate goals, such as quality products, interests of non-shareholder participants or even the actual financial interests of the real human beings who own the shares."  And judges and scholars, like Chancellor Chandler and Chief Justice Strine, have reinforced this view, which, I maintain, is wrong (or should be).  
 
Professor Bainbridge has explained, "The fact that corporate law does not intend to promote corporate social responsibility, but rather merely allows it to exist behind the shield of the business judgment rule becomes significant in -- and is confirmed by -- cases where the business judgment rule does not apply." Todd Henderson similarly argued, and I agree, 
Those on the right, like Milton Friedman, argue that the shareholder-wealth-maximization requirement prohibits firms from acting in ways that benefit, say, local communities or the environment, at the expense of the bottom line. Those on the left, like Franken, argue that the duty to shareholders makes corporations untrustworthy and dangerous. They are both wrong.
I don't disagree with Joan (or with Greenwood, for that matter), that accountability matters, but I do think we should frame accountability properly, and put accountability where it belongs.  That is political accountability and corporate accountability are different. As I see it, corporations are not directly accountable to citizens (employees or not) in this sense (they are in contract and tort, of course). Corporations are accountable to their shareholders, and to some degree to legislators and regulators who can modify the rules based on how corporations act.  Politicians, on the other hand, are accountable to the citizens.  If citizens are not happy with how entities behave, they can take that to their politicians, who can then choose to act (or not) on their behalf.  
 
I think entities should consider the needs of employees, and I believe entities would be well served to listen to their employees. I happen to think that is good business. But I think the idea that employees have a right to a formal voice at the highest levels within the entity is flawed, until such time as the business itself or legislators or regulators decide to make that the rule. (I do not, to be clear, think that would be a good rule for legislators or regulators to make for private entities.) The proper balance of laws and regulations is a separate question from this discussion, though. Here, the key is that accountability -- or, as Prof. Bainbridge says, "the power to decide" -- remains in the right place.  I am inclined to think the power structure is correct right now, and whether that power is being used correctly is an entirely different, and separate, issue.  

August 1, 2017 in Business Associations, Corporations, CSR, Delaware, Joan Heminway, Joshua P. Fershee, Legislation, Management, Research/Scholarhip, Shareholders, Social Enterprise | Permalink | Comments (1)

Monday, July 31, 2017

Democratic Norms and the Corporation: The Core Notion of Accountability

The corporate form has been compared and contrasted favorably and unfavorably with government.  The literature is broad and deep.  Having said that, there is, perhaps, no one who writes more passionately on this topic than Daniel Greenwood.  Set forth below are two examples of text from his work that illustrate my point.

We live in a democratic age, in which the sole legitimate source of political power is the consent of the governed. Yet our business corporations defy every norm of democracy.
 
Most fundamentally, corporate law and our major business corporations treat the people most analogous to the governed, those most concerned with corporate decisions, as mere helots. Employees in the American corporate law system have no political rights at all—not only no vote, but not even virtual representation in the boardroom legislature. Board members owe a fiduciary duty to the corporation, according to most of the statutes, and to the shareholders, according to the popular shareholder primacy narratives, but they owe no consideration at all to employees.
 
Daniel J.H. Greenwood, Essay: Telling Stories of Shareholder Supremacy, 2009 Mich. St. L. Rev. 1049, 1060 (2009).
 
The corporation as a state-within-the-state . . . cannot be justified under any democratic theory, because this state-like entity defies all democratic norms internally. No corporation operates by the principle of one person, one vote. All economically significant corporations disenfranchise a substantial portion of the affected populace, while even shareholders vote according to the number of shares they hold. Moreover, standard corporate law sharply limits the control that even the “voters” have over “their” entity. The law bars them, in the absence of unanimous consent, from making fundamental value choices, for example, from balancing the pursuit of profit against other potential corporate goals, such as quality products, interests of non-shareholder participants or even the actual financial interests of the real human beings who own the shares. Moreover, it even bars them from electing directors pledged to particular interests: directors, unlike ordinary politicians, are bound by law to pursue the interests of all (and only) shares, and courts will enforce this duty-subject to the often significant limitations of the business judgment rule-at the behest of any shareholder, regardless of election results. Theorists, therefore, usually resort to market-based explanations of why the corporation is unable to exert any power over its shareholders, employees and other participants.
 
Daniel J.H. Greenwood, Markets and Democracy: The Illegitimacy of Corporate Law, 74 UMKC L. Rev. 41, 54–55 (2005) (footnotes omitted).  Whether you agree with Daniel or not on the substance, his views are transparent and his belief and energy are palpable.
 
With politics in the news every day and corporations on my mind, I have been pondering certain elements of democracy as they play themselves out in corporate governance.  In particular, of late, I have focused in on accountability as a core democratic norm.  

Continue reading

July 31, 2017 in Corporate Governance, Corporations, Current Affairs, Joan Heminway | Permalink | Comments (2)

Tuesday, July 18, 2017

Long Live Director Primacy: Social Benefit Entities and the Downfall of Social Responsibility

The more I read about social enterprise entities, the less I like about them.  In 2014, my colleague Elaine Wilson and I wrote March of the Benefit Corporation: So Why Bother? Isn’t the Business Judgment Rule Alive and Well?  We observed:

Regardless of jurisdiction, there may be value in having an entity that plainly states the entity’s benefit purpose, but in most instances, it does not seem necessary (and is perhaps even redundant). Furthermore, the existence of the benefit corporation opens the door to further scrutiny of the decisions of corporate directors who take into account public benefit as part of their business planning, which erodes director primacy, which limits director options, which can, ultimately, harm businesses by stifling innovation and creativity.  In other words, this raises the question: does the existence of the benefit corporation as an alternative entity mean that traditional business corporations will be held to an even stricter, profit-maximization standard?

I am more firmly convinced this is the path we are on.  The emergence of social enterprise enabling statutes and the demise of director primacy threaten to greatly, and gravely, limit the scope of business decisions directors can make for traditional for-profit entities, threatening both social responsibility and economic growth. Recent Delaware cases, as well as other writings from Delaware judges, suggest that shareholder wealth maximization has become a more singular and narrow obligation of for-profit entities, and that other types of entities (such as non profits or benefit corporations) are the only proper entity forms for companies seeking to pursue paths beyond pure, and blatant, profit seeking. Now that many states have alternative social enterprise entity structures, there is an increased risk that traditional entities will be viewed (by both courts and directors) as pure profit vehicles, eliminating directors’ ability to make choices with the public benefit in mind, even where the public benefit is also good for business (at least in the long term). Narrowing directors’ decision making in this way limits the options for innovation, building goodwill, and maintaining an engaged workforce, to the detriment of employees, society, and, yes, shareholders. 

I know there are some who believe that I see the sky falling when it's just a little rain. Perhaps. I would certainly concede that the problems I see can be addressed through law, if necessary.  I am just not a big fan of passing some more laws and regulations, so we can pass more laws to fix the things we added.  My view of entity purpose remains committed to the principle of director primacy.  Directors are obligated to run the entity for the benefit of the shareholders, but, absent fraud, illegality, or self-dealing, the directors decide what actions are for the benefit of shareholders. Period, full stop.  

July 18, 2017 in Corporations, Delaware, Joshua P. Fershee, Legislation, Management, Shareholders, Social Enterprise | Permalink | Comments (4)

Wednesday, July 12, 2017

Should we be steering more law students to compliance careers?

Prior to joining academia, I served as a compliance officer, deputy GC, and chief privacy officer for a Fortune 500 company. I had to learn everything on the job by attending webinars and conferences and reading client alerts. Back then, I would have paid a law school graduate a competitive salary to work in my compliance group, but I couldn’t find anyone who had any idea about what the field entailed.

The world has changed. Now many schools (including mine) offer relevant coursework for this JD-advantage position. I just finished teaching a summer skills course in compliance and corporate social responsibility, and I’m hoping that I have encouraged at least a few of the students to consider it as a viable career path. Compliance is one of the fastest growing corporate positions in the country, and the number of compliance personnel has doubled in the past 6 years. Still, many business-minded law students don’t consider it in the same vein as they consider jobs with Big Law.

This summer, my twelve students met twice a week for two hours at 7:30 pm. In the compressed six-week course, they did the following:

  • Heard from compliance officers and outside counsel for public companies and government entities
  • Read the same kinds of primary source material that compliance officers and counsel read in practice (such as the Federal Sentencing Guidelines, the Yates Memo, deferred prosecution agreements, and materials from the EU on the upcoming changes to data protection regulation)
  • Compared and contrasted CSR reports from WalMart and Target, and reviewed the standards for the Global Reporting Initiative and the UN Global Compact
  • Advocated before a board as a worker safety NGO for a company doing business in Bangladesh
  • Served as a board member during a meeting (using actual board profiles)
  • Wrote a reflection paper on the ideal role and reporting structure of compliance officers
  • Considered top employment law and data protection risks for fictional companies to which they were assigned
  • Looked at the 10-Ks and CDP report for climate change disclosures after examining the role of socially responsible investors and shareholder resolutions
  • Drafted industry-specific risk assessment questionnaires
  • Drafted three code of conduct policies
  • Wrote a short memo to the GC on health care compliance and the DOJ Yates memo
  • Did a role play during a crisis management simulation acting as either a board member, SEC or DOJ lawyer, the CEO, compliance officer or GC and
  • Conducted a 20-minute board presentation or employee compliance training (worth the biggest part of the grade).

Perhaps the most gratifying part of the semester came during tonight’s final presentations. The students could pick any topic relevant to the fictional company that they were assigned. They chose to discuss child labor in the supply chain for a clothing company, off-label marketing in the pharmaceutical industry, anti-money laundering compliance in a large bank, and environmental and employment law issues for a consumer product conglomerate. Even though I was not their BA professor, I was thrilled to hear them talk about the Caremark duty, the duty of care, and the business judgment rule in their presentations. Most important, the students have left with a portfolio of marketable skills and real-world knowledge in a fast growing field.

If you have your own ideas on how to teach compliance and CSR, please leave them below or email me at mweldon@law.miami.edu.

July 12, 2017 in Compliance, Corporate Governance, Corporate Personality, Corporations, CSR, Law School, Marcia Narine Weldon, Teaching | Permalink | Comments (0)

Friday, July 7, 2017

New Article by Bernard Sharfman on Dual Class Shares and IPOs

Bernard Sharfman has written another interesting article on shareholder empowerment. I wish I had read A Private Ordering Defense of a Company's Right to Use Dual Class Share Structures in IPOs before I discussed the Snap IPO last semester in business associations.

The abstract is below:

The shareholder empowerment movement (movement) has renewed its effort to eliminate, restrict or at the very least discourage the use of dual class share structures in initial public offerings (IPOs). This renewed effort was triggered by the recent Snap Inc. IPO that utilized non-voting stock. Such advocacy, if successful, would not be trivial, as many of our most valuable and dynamic companies, including Alphabet (Google) and Facebook, have gone public by offering shares with unequal voting rights.

This Article utilizes Zohar Goshen and Richard Squire’s “principal-cost theory” to argue that the use of the dual class share structure in IPOs is a value enhancing result of the bargaining that takes place in the private ordering of corporate governance arrangements, making the movement’s renewed advocacy unwarranted.

As he has concluded:

It is important to understand that while excellent arguments can be made that the private ordering of dual class share structures must incorporate certain provisions, such as sunset provisions, it is an overreach for academics and shareholder activists to dictate to sophisticated capital market participants, the ones who actually take the financial risk of investing in IPOs, including those with dual class share structures, how to structure corporate governance arrangements. Obviously, all the sophisticated players in the capital markets who participate in an IPO with dual class shares can read the latest academic articles on dual class share structures, including the excellent new article by Lucian Bebchuk and Kobi Kastiel, and incorporate that information in the bargaining process without being dictated to by parties who are not involved in the process. If, as a result of this bargaining, the dual class share structure has no sunset provision and perhaps even no voting rights in the shares offered, then we must conclude that these terms were what the parties required in order to get the deal done, with the risks of the structure being well understood.… capital markets paternalism is not required when it comes to IPOs with dual class share structures.

Please be sure to share your comments with Bernard below.

July 7, 2017 in Corporate Finance, Corporate Governance, Corporate Personality, Corporations, Marcia Narine Weldon, Securities Regulation, Shareholders | Permalink | Comments (0)

Tuesday, June 13, 2017

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

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

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

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

On what test to apply to parent-subsidiary dividends: 

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

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

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

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

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

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