Tuesday, July 26, 2016
Anyone who reads this blog knows that I have issues with how people mess up the distinction between LLCs (limited liability companies) and corporations. In some instances, it is a subtle, likely careless, mistake. Other cases seem to be trolling me. Today, I present you such a case: Sky Cable, LLC v. Coley, 2016 WL 3926492 (W.D.Va., July 18, 2016). H/T: Jay D. Adkisson. The case describes the proceedings as follows:
DIRECTV asks the court to reverse-pierce the corporate veil and declare that Randy Coley is the alter ego of his three limited liability companies, such that the assets held by those LLCs are subject to the judgment in this case.
Okay, so claiming to pierce the "corporate veil" of an LLC is wrong (it doesn't have a "corporate" anything), but it's also exceedingly common for lawyers and courts to make such an assertion. This case takes the improper designation to the next level.
First, the court describes the LLCs in questios as "the Corporate Entities." It then goes on to discuss "Coley's limited liability companies." Ugh. The court further relates, "DIRECTV stated that in a forthcoming motion, it would ask the court to reverse-pierce the corporate veil given Coley's abuse of the corporate form." No such form, but perhaps we can now blame DIRECTV's counsel, in part, for this hot mess.
Here's the court's Legal Framework:
Generally, corporations are recognized as entities that are separate and distinct from their officers and stockholders. [Author's note: THERE ARE NO SHAREHOLDERS IN LLCS!] "But this concept of separate entity is merely a legal theory, 'introduced for purposes of convenience and to subserve the ends of justice,' and the courts 'decline to recognize [it] whenever recognition of the corporate form would extend the principle of incorporation "beyond its legitimate purposes and [would] produce injustices or inequitable consequences.' "" DeWitt Truck Brokers, Inc. v. W. Ray Flemming Fruit Co., 540 F.2d 681, 683 (4th Cir. 1976) (citations omitted). When appropriate, and " 'in furtherance of the ends of justice,' " a court may pierce the corporate veil and treat the corporation and its shareholders as one, id. (quoting 18 Am. Jur. 2d at 559), if it finds a corporation and its shareholders have misused or disregarded the corporate form, United States v. Kolon Indus., Inc., 926 F. Supp. 2d 794, 815 (E.D. Va. 2013). This is often referred to as an "alter ego theory."
The court continues: "Delaware courts take the corporate form and corporate formalities very seriously.... " Case Fin., Inc. v. Alden, No. CIV. A. 1184-VCP, 2009 WL 2581873, at *4 (Del. Ch. Aug. 21, 2009)." The opinion then states that veil piercing concepts"apply equally to limited liability companies which, like corporations, have a legal existence separate and distinct from its members." The concept may, but LLCs do not have to follow the same formalities as corporations to maintain separate existence. Even if veil piercing were appropriate here, the entire case continues to misstate the law of veil piercing LLCs. Note: Delaware courts do hold some blame here: Westmeyer v. Flynn, 382 Ill. App. 3d 952, 960, 889 N.E.2d 671, 678 (2008) ("[U]nder Delaware law, just as with a corporation, the corporate veil of an LLC may be pierced, where appropriate.").
Based on the opinion, it does seems as though the defendant here was being shady, at best, and perhaps outright fraudulent. I don't suggest that, based on the facts presented, the defendant shouldn't be held accountable for his debts. Still, in addition to the misstatements of the law, I am not sure veil piercing was necessary. As the court notes, "veil piercing is an equitable remedy and an extraordinary one, exercised only in exceptional circumstances "when 'necessary to promote justice.'" It seems to me, then, the court (and the plaintiff) should discuss other remedies first, relying only on veil piercing where "necessary."
As such, I'd like to see a discussion of fraudulent or improper transfer before veil piercing -- did the defendant improperly move assets that should have been available to the plaintiff into an entity? Before veil piercing three entities, it seems to me the court should determine what should have been available to the plaintiff -- if the answer is "nothing" then no amount of shady behavior should support veil piercing. If there should be assets, then the question should still be "which ones?" If the answer is all of the assets in all of then entities, then okay. But if the court is veil piercing three entities merely to ensure adequate recovery, that's an overreach, it seems to me. In addition, how about reviewing if there was actual fraud in how the defendant acted? That, too, could support recovery without the extraordinary veil piercing remedy.
Ultimately, it's possible the court got the outcome right here. But it clearly got the law wrong. A lot.
Monday, July 25, 2016
In a recent decision of the Tennessee Supreme Court, Keller v. Estate of Edward Stephen McRedmond, Tennessee adopted Delaware's direct-versus-derivative litigation analysis from Tooley v. Donaldson, Lufkin, & Jenrette, Inc., 845 A.2d 1031 (Del. 2004), displacing a previously applicable test (that from Hadden v. City of Gatlinburg, 746 S.W.2d 687 (Tenn. 1988)). Although this is certainly significant, I also find the case interesting as an example of the way that a court treats different types of claims that can arise in typical corporate governance controversies (especially in small family and other closely held businesses). This post covers both matters briefly.
The Keller case involves a family business eventually organized as a for-profit corporation under Tennessee law ("MBI"). As is so often the case, after the children take over the business, a schism develops in the family that results in a deadlock under a pre-existing shareholders' agreement. A court-ordered dissolution follows, and after a bidding process in which each warring side of the family bids, the trustee contracts to sell the assets of MBI to members of one of the two family factions as the higher bidder. These acquiring family members organize their own corporation to hold the transferred MBI assets ("New MBI") and assign their rights under the MBI asset purchase agreement to New MBI
Prior to the closing, the losing bidder family member, Louie, then an officer and director of MBI who ran part of its business (its grease business), solicited customers and employees, starved the MBI grease business, diverted business opportunities from MBI's grease business to a corporation he already had established (on the MBI property) to compete with MBI in that business sector, and engaged in other behavior disloyal to MBI. Louie's actions were alleged to have contravened a court order enforcing covenants in the MBI asset purchase agreement. They also were allegedly disloyal and constituted a breach of his fiduciary duty of loyalty to MBI. Finally, they constituted an alleged interference with New MBI's business relations.
Thursday, July 21, 2016
Jamie Dimon (JP Morgan Chase), Warren Buffet (Berkshire Hathaway), Mary Barra (General Motors), Jeff Immet (GE), Larry Fink (Blackrock) and other executives think so and have published a set of "Commonsense Principles of Corporate Governance" for public companies. There are more specifics in the Principles, but the key points cribbed from the front page of the new website are as follows:
Truly independent corporate boards are vital to effective governance, so no board should be beholden to the CEO or management. Every board should meet regularly without the CEO present, and every board should have active and direct engagement with executives below the CEO level;
■ Diverse boards make better decisions, so every board should have members with complementary and diverse skills, backgrounds and experiences. It’s also important to balance wisdom and judgment that accompany experience and tenure with the need for fresh thinking and perspectives of new board members;
■ Every board needs a strong leader who is independent of management. The board’s independent directors usually are in the best position to evaluate whether the roles of chairman and CEO should be separate or combined; and if the board decides on a combined role, it is essential that the board have a strong lead independent director with clearly defined authorities and responsibilities;
■ Our financial markets have become too obsessed with quarterly earnings forecasts. Companies should not feel obligated to provide earnings guidance — and should do so only if they believe that providing such guidance is beneficial to shareholders;
■ A common accounting standard is critical for corporate transparency, so while companies may use non-Generally Accepted Accounting Principles (“GAAP”) to explain and clarify their results, they never should do so in such a way as to obscure GAAP-reported results; and in particular, since stock- or options-based compensation is plainly a cost of doing business, it always should be reflected in non-GAAP measurements of earnings; and
■ Effective governance requires constructive engagement between a company and its shareholders. So the company’s institutional investors making decisions on proxy issues important to long-term value creation should have access to the company, its management and, in some circumstances, the board; similarly, a company, its management and board should have access to institutional investors’ ultimate decision makers on those issues.
I expect that shareholder activists, proxy advisory firms, and corporate governance nerds like myself will scrutinize the specifics against what the signatories’ companies are actually doing. Nonetheless, I commend these business leaders for at least starting a dialogue (even if a lot of the recommendations are basic common sense) and will be following this closely.
Wednesday, July 20, 2016
Last week on the blog I featured the smart book Empire of the Fund by sharing excerpts from a conversation with author, Professor William Birdthistle. In discussing the book, he shared with me some insights on writing a book: its process, genesis and use in the classroom. I am fascinated by other's people writing process in the continual effort to improve my own.
writing a book...
[W]riting a book was more of a challenge than I expected, even though I told myself it was simply a collection of law review articles. It turns out that the blinking cursor on an empty screen is more taunting when you're obliged to fill hundreds of pages. Brief stints of productivity need to be repeated again and again and, until it all exists, nothing really exists. I developed a convoluted system of drafting notes, then sitting down with a research assistant to record a chat about those notes, then working that recording into an outline. That process still left me with plenty of writing to do, but I found it much easier to expand, polish, and revise those outlines than to fight the demon blank page.
Talking through your ideas forces you to synthesize the materials. It also retains the humanity behind the arguments. This method makes a lot of sense when you read Professor Birdthistle's book because it feels like he is talking to you— just in a way that is smarter, better organized and more pithy than most of us can muster in the average conversation. His book doesn't read like the belabored, bloated, and laborious sections that all too often find their way in law review articles (my own included).
genesis for the book...
The contents, to a large extent, have actually come from the classroom -- as these materials serve as the syllabus for a seminar I've taught for a few years. The seminar, called Investment Funds, is almost always popular: in a go-go market, all the students want to hear about private equity and hedge funds; then in downturns, I get a sober audience of students who want to know more about their 401(k)s.
application to broader classes...
I often work this material in to my BusOrg and SecReg classes too: so, I emphasize the role of funds on topics like corporate purpose (does charitable giving look different if the corporate funds might otherwise go to 401(k) holders), proxy contests (in which mutual funds are major institutional investors but often conspicuously absent from these fights), shorting (where the securities are often borrowed from mutual funds and ETFs), and behavioral versus neoclassical theory (quoting heavily from a wonderful disagreement between Judges Easterbrook and Posner in Jones v. Harris before it went to the Supreme Court).
Since almost all students will soon be figuring out their own 401(k) and mutual fund investments, I've found that it's easy to make business issues far more salient to their lives. Even to the saints who'll soon have a 403(b).
the role of behavioral work...
Finally, I highlight Professor Birdthistle's observations about changes to the corporate law landscape made space for a book like his to contribute, in a serious way, to the academic and popular debate about the efficacy of the mutual fund market.
I've been struck by the change in our intellectual and academic disposition towards investing problems. I've been in the academy for a decade now and, when I began, the rational investor model was so thoroughgoing that it was difficult to discuss problems of individual investing. Many conversations -- and job talks -- required a first-principles exegesis about how this market might possibly be anything other than highly efficient. But a tide of behavioral work in recent years has helped explain why investors might struggle, and a good deal of empirical work has concretely shown how they struggle. So conversations today focus more upon solutions rather than on whether there is even a problem.
To this last point, I wonder what ideas and principles, which seem untouchable today, will give way to the next generation's breakthrough. I think is a particularly heartening message for young scholars--not all of the work has been done! Keep at it! And it is an important message for folks who aren't writing in the mainstream. For folks who are passionate about their work, but feeling like their ideas aren't garnering the right cache with the right audiences. This is where you persevere so long as the work is thorough and well researched. Maybe you and your work are contributing to an important intellectual advancement. You could be changing the tides in ways that in presently imperceptible, but significant nonetheless. So as the August submission deadline looms and the summer hours threaten to languish, press on!
Because this post is a compilation of quotes, I now turn to Garrison Keeler to close:
Be well, do good work, and keep in touch.
*Query: Are the best motivational speeches are the ones you write for yourself?
Thursday, July 14, 2016
Two weeks ago, I blogged about the potential unintended consequences of (1) Dodd-Frank whistleblower awards to compliance officers and in-house counsel and (2) the Department of Justice’s Yates Memo, which requires companies to turn over individuals (even before they have determined they are legally culpable) in order to get any cooperation credit from the government.
Today at the International Legal Ethics Conference, I spoke about the intersection of state ethics laws, common law fiduciary duties, SOX §307 and §806, and the potential erosion of the attorney-client relationship. I posed the following questions regarding lawyer/whistleblowers and the Yates Memo at the end of my talk:
- How will this affect Upjohn warnings? (These are the corporate Miranda warnings and were hard enough for me to administer without me having to tell the employee that I might have to turn them over to the government after our conversation)
- Will corporate employees ask for their own counsel during investigations or plead the 5th since they now run a real risk of being criminally and civilly prosecuted by DOJ?
- Will companies have to pay for separate counsel for certain employees and must that payment be disclosed to DOJ?
- Will companies turn people over to the government before proper investigations are completed just to save the company?
- Will executives cooperate in an investigation? Why should they?
- What’s the intersection with the Responsible Corporate Officer Doctrine (which Stephen Bainbridge has already criticized as "running amok")?
- Will there be more claims/denials for D & O coverage?
- Will individuals who cooperate get cooperation credit in their own cases?
- Will employees turn on their superiors without proper investigation?
- How will individuals/companies deal with parallel civil/criminal enforcement proceedings?
- What about indemnification clauses in employment contracts?
- Will there be more trials because there is little incentive for a corporation to plead guilty?
- What about data privacy restrictions for multinationals who operate in EU?
- How will this affect voluntary disclosure under the US Federal Sentencing Guidelines for Organizational Defendants, especially in Foreign Corrupt Practices Act cases?
- What ‘s the impact on joint defense agreements?
- As a lawyer for lawyers who want to be whistleblowers, can you ever advise them to take the chance of losing their license?
I didn’t have time to talk about the added complication of potential director liability under Caremark and its progeny. During my compliance officer days, I used Caremark’s name in vain to get more staff, budget, and board access so that I could train them on the basics on the US Federal Sentencing Guidelines for Organizations. I explained to the Board that this line of cases required them to have some level of oversight over an effective compliance program. Among other things, Caremark required a program with “timely, accurate information sufficient to allow management and the board, each within its scope, to reach informed judgments concerning the [company’s] compliance with law and its business performance.”
I, like other compliance officers, often reviewed/re-tooled our compliance program after another company had negotiated a deferred or nonprosecution agreement with the government. These DPAs had an appendix with everything that the offending company had to do to avoid prosecution. Rarely, if ever, did the DPA mention an individual wrongdoer, and that’s been the main criticism and likely the genesis of the Yates Memo.
Boards will now likely have to take more of a proactive leadership role in demanding investigations at an early stage rather than relying on the GC or compliance officer to inform them of what has already occurred. Boards may need to hire their own counsel to advise on them on this and/or require the general counsel to have outside counsel conduct internal investigations at the outset. This leads to other interesting questions. For example, what happens if executives retain their own counsel and refuse to participate in an investigation that the Board requests? Should the Board designate a special committee (similar to an SLC in the shareholder derivative context) to make sure that there is no taint in the investigation or recommendations? At what point will the investigation become a reportable event for a public company? Will individual board members themselves lawyer up?
I will definitely have a lot to write about this Fall. If you have any thoughts leave them below or email me at email@example.com.
Wednesday, July 13, 2016
This is just me musing a bit, but in following up my post on how LLCs can choose to “be corporations” for federal tax purposes, meaning they get C corp tax treatment, I was thinking that maybe the IRS could just stop using state-law designations at all. That is, stop having “corporate” tax treatment at all.
My proposal is not abolishing corporate tax – that’s a much longer post and one I am not sure I’d agree with. Instead, the proposal is to have entities choose from options that are linked the Internal Revenue Code, and not to a particular entity. Thus, we would have (1) entity taxation, called C Tax, where an entity chooses to pay tax at the entity level, which would be typical C Corp taxation; (2) pass-through taxation, called K Tax, which is what we usually think of as partnership tax; and (3) we get rid of S corps, which can now be LLCs, anyway, which would allow an entity to choose S Tax.
This post deals with the tax code, which means I am in over my head, and because this is tax related, it means the solution is a lot more complicated than this proposal. But now that the code provisions are not really linked to the state law entity, I think we should try refer to state entities as state entities, and federal tax status with regard to federal tax status. Under such a code, it would be a little easier for people to understand the concept behind state entity status, and it would make more sense to people that a “C Corp” does mean “publicly traded corporation” (a far-too common misunderstanding). Thus, we could have C Tax corporations, S Tax LLCs, K Tax LLCs, for example. We'd know tax status and state-entity status quite simply and we'd separate the concepts.
A guy can dream, right?
Professor William Birdthistle at Chicago-Kent College of Law is publishing his new book, Empire of the Fund with Oxford University Press. A brief introductory video for the book (available here) demonstrates both Professor Birdthistle’s charming accent and talent for video productions (this is obviously not his first video rodeo). Professor Birdthistle has generously provided our readers with a window into the book’s thesis and highlights some of its lessons. I’ll run a second feature next week focusing on the process of writing a book—an aspiration/current project for many of us.
Empire of the Fund is segmented into four digestible parts: anatomy of a fund describing the history and function of mutual funds, diseases & disorders addressing fees, trading practices and disclosures, alternative remedies introducing readers to ETFs, target date funds and other savings vehicles, and cures where Birdthistle highlights his proposals. For the discussion of the Jones v. Harris case alone, I think I will assign this book to my corporate law seminar class for our “book club”. As other reviewers have noted, the book is funny and highly readable, especially as it sneaks in financial literacy. And now, from Professor Birdthistle:
Things that the audience might learn:
The SEC does practically zero enforcement on fees. [pp. 215-216] Even though every expert understands the importance of fees on mutual fund investing, the SEC has brought just one or only two cases in its entire history against advisors charging excessive fees. Section 36(b) gives the SEC and private plaintiffs a cause of action, but the SEC has basically ignored it; even prompting Justice Scalia to ask why during oral arguments in Jones v. Harris? Private plaintiffs, on the other hand, bring cases against the wrong defendants (big funds with deep pockets but relatively reasonable fees). So I urge the SEC to bring one of these cases to police the outer bounds of stratospheric fund fees.
The only justification for 12b-1 fees has been debunked. [pp. 81-83] Most investors don't know much about 12b-1 fees and are surprised by the notion that they should be paying to advertise funds in which they already invest to future possible investors. The industry's response is that spending 12b-1 fees will bring in more investors and thus lead to greater savings for all investors via economies of scale. The SEC's own financial economist, however, studied these claims and found (surprisingly unequivocally for a government official) that, yes, 12b-1 fees certainly are effective at bringing in new investment but, no, funds do not then pass along any savings to the funds' investors. I sketch this out in a dialogue on page 81 between a pair of imaginary nightclub denizens.
Target-date funds are more dangerous than most people realize. [pp. 172-174] Target-date funds are embraced by many as a panacea to our investing problem and have been extremely successful as such. But I point out some serious drawbacks with them. First, they are in large part an end-of-days solution in which we essentially give up on trying to educate investors and encourage them simply to set and forget their investments; that's a path to lowering financial literacy, not raising it (which may be a particularly acute issue if my second objection materializes). Second, TDFs rely entirely on the assumption that the bond market is the safety to which all investors should move as they age; but if we're heading for a historic bear market on bonds (as several intelligent and serious analysts have posited), we'll be in very large danger with a somnolent investing population
Thursday, July 7, 2016
SEC disclosures are meant to provide material information to investors. As I hope all of my business associations students know, “information is material if there is a substantial likelihood that a reasonable investor would consider the information important in deciding how to vote or make an investment decision.”
Regulation S-K, the central repository for non-financial disclosure statements, has been in force without substantial revision for over thirty years. The SEC is taking comments until July 21st on on the rule however, it is not revising “other disclosure requirements in Regulation S-K, such as executive compensation and governance, or the required disclosures for foreign private issuers, business development companies, or other categories of registrants.” Specifically, as stated in its 341-page Comment Release, the SEC seeks input on:
- whether, and if so, how specific disclosures are important or useful to making investment and voting decisions and whether more, less or different information might be needed;
- whether, and if so how, we could revise our current requirements to enhance the information provided to investors while considering whether the action will promote efficiency, competition, and capital formation;
- whether, and if so how, we could revise our requirements to enhance the protection of investors;
- whether our current requirements appropriately balance the costs of disclosure with the benefits;
- whether, and if so how, we could lower the cost to registrants of providing information to investors, including considerations such as advancements in technology and communications;
- whether and if so, how we could increase the benefits to investors and facilitate investor access to disclosure by modernizing the methods used to present, aggregate and disseminate disclosure; and
- any challenges of our current disclosure requirements and those that may result from possible regulatory responses explored in this release or suggested by commenters.
As of this evening, thirty comments had been submitted including from Wachtell Lipton, which cautions against “overdisclosure” and urges more flexible means of communicating with investors; the Sustainability Accounting Standards Board, which observes that 40% of 10-K disclosures on sustainability use boilerplate language and recommends a market standard for industry-specific disclosures (which SASB is developing); and the Pension Consulting Alliance, which agrees with SASB’s methodology and states that:
[our] clients increasingly request more ESG information related to their investments. Key PCA advisory services that are affected by ESG issues include:
- Investment beliefs and investment policy development
- Manager selection and monitoring
- Portfolio-wide exposure to material ESG risks
- Education and analysis on macro and micro issues
- Proxy voting and engagement
This is an interesting time for people like me who study disclosures. Last week the SEC released its revised rule on Dodd-Frank §1504 that had to be re-written after court challenges. That rule requires an issuer “to disclose payments made to the U.S. federal government or a foreign government if the issuer engages in the commercial development of oil, natural gas, or minerals and is required to file annual reports with the Commission under the Securities Exchange Act.” Representative Bill Huizenga, the Chairman of the House Financial Services Subcommittee on Monetary Policy and Trade, introduced an amendment to the FY2017 Financial Services and General Government (FSGG) Appropriations bill, H.R. 5485, to prohibit funding for enforcement for another governance disclosure--Dodd-Frank conflict minerals.
SEC Chair White has herself questioned the wisdom of the SEC requiring and monitoring certain disclosures, noting the potential for investor information overload. Nonetheless, she and the agency are committed to enforcement. Her fresh look at disclosures reflects a balanced approach. If you have some spare time this summer and think the SEC’s disclosure system needs improvement, now is the time to let the agency know.
Tuesday, July 5, 2016
So, readers of this blog know that I despise the misuse of the term "limited liability corporation" when the writer or speaker means "limited liability company," which is the correct term for an LLC. There is a time, though, when an LLC can be a corporation, and that is for federal tax purposes if the entity makes such a choice.
Entity choice is a state law decision, but and LLC can elect to be treated as a corporation under the Internal Revenue Code. The Internal Revenue Service recently issued Publication 3402, which explains:
Classification of an LLC Default classification.
An LLC with at least two members is classified as a partnership for federal income tax purposes. An LLC with only one member is treated as an entity disregarded as separate from its owner for income tax purposes (but as a separate entity for purposes of employment tax and certain excise taxes). Also, an LLC's federal tax classification can subsequently change under certain default rules discussed later.
An LLC can elect to be classified as an association taxable as a corporation or as an S corporation. After an LLC has determined its federal tax classification, it can later elect to change that classification. For details, see Subsequent Elections, later. LLCs Classified as Partnerships If an LLC has at least two members and is classified as a partnership, it generally must file Form 1065, U.S. Return of Partnership Income. Generally, an LLC classified as a partnership is subject to the same filing and reporting requirements as partnerships. See the Instructions for Form 1065 for rep
Still, this should really be called an LLC that has elected federal tax status as a corporation or an "LLC FCorp." Or something like that. But at least in this situation, an LLC is something of a corporation.
Monday, July 4, 2016
Anne Tucker (who, together with Haskell Murray, me, and many others, attended the 8th Annual Berle Symposium in Seattle a week ago) penned an excellent post last week on the importance of shareholder value under Delaware law. Her post covers important outtakes from the symposium presentation given by former Delaware Chancellor William (Bill) Chandler and Elizabeth Hecker, both lawyers in the Wilmington, Delaware office of Wilson Sonsini Goodrich & Rosati. In the post, Anne accurately and succinctly summarizes a key take-away from the former Chancellor's remarks:
[A] Delaware court will invalidate a board of directors' other serving actions only if they are in conflict with shareholder value, but never when it is complimentary. And there is a expanding appreciation of when "other interests" are seen as complimentary to, and not in competition with, shareholder value maximization.
Specifically, as Anne's summary indicates, Chancellor Chandler stated his view that a Delaware corporate board must place shareholder financial wealth (whether in the short term or the long term) ahead of any other value in its decision making. This is hardly a surprise to anyone who follows Delaware corporate law judicial opinions (although the former Chancellor's statement of the law was among the clearest and most definite I have heard). After all, Chancellor Chandler's opinion in the eBay case is widely cited for this proposition.
The Berle symposium focused on benefit corporations this year, and my draft paper for the symposium highlights the central importance of a corporation's charter-based corporate purpose in that type of firm. So, I asked the former Chancellor for his personal view on how a Delaware court might handle a specific type of corporate purpose clause in a non-benefit-corporation Delaware corporate law context. The specific corporate purpose clause I had in mind is one that expresses a clear "second bottom line" (other than the promotion of shareholder value) and clearly indicates that neither bottom line is to be given constant or presumed precedence over the other in decisions made by the board of directors or the corporate officers.
Friday, July 1, 2016
This post concerns the rights and responsibilities of whistleblowers. I sit on the Department of Labor Whistleblower Protection Advisory Committee. These views are solely my own.
Within a week of my last day as a Deputy General Counsel and Chief Compliance Officer for a Fortune 500 company and shortly before starting my VAP in academia, I testified before the House Financial Services Committee on the potential unintended consequences of the proposed Dodd-Frank whistleblower law on compliance programs. I blogged here about my testimony and the rule, which allows whistleblowers who provide original information to the SEC related to securities fraud or violations of the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act to receive 10 to 30 percent of the amount of the recovery in any action in which the Commission levies sanctions in excess of $1 million dollars. During my testimony in 2011, I explained to some skeptical members of Congress that:
…the legislation as written has a loophole that could allow legal, compliance, audit, and other fiduciaries to collect the bounty although they are already professionally obligated to address these issues. While the whistleblower community believes that these fiduciaries are in the best position to report to the SEC on wrongdoing, as a former in house counsel and compliance officer, I believe that those with a fiduciary duty should be excluded and have an “up before out” requirement to inform the general counsel, compliance officer or board of the substantive allegation or any inadequacy in the compliance program before reporting externally.
Thankfully, the final rule does have some limitations, in part, I believe because of my testimony and the urgings of the Association of Corporate Counsel, the American Bar Association and others. In a section of the SEC press release on the program discussing unintended consequences released a few weeks after the testimony, the agency stated:
However, in certain circumstances, compliance and internal audit personnel as well as public accountants could become whistleblowers when:
- The whistleblower believes disclosure may prevent substantial injury to the financial interest or property of the entity or investors.
- The whistleblower believes that the entity is engaging in conduct that will impede an investigation.
- At least 120 days have elapsed since the whistleblower reported the information to his or her supervisor or the entity’s audit committee, chief legal officer, chief compliance officer – or at least 120 days have elapsed since the whistleblower received the information, if the whistleblower received it under circumstances indicating that these people are already aware of the information.
At least two compliance officers or internal audit personnel have in fact received awards—one for $300,000 and another for $1,500,000. When I served on a panel a couple of years ago with Sean McKessy, Chief of the Office of the Whistleblower, he made it clear that he expected lawyers, auditors, and compliance officers to step forward and would not hesitate to award them.
Compliance officers have even more incentive to be diligent (or become whistleblowers) because of the DOJ Yates Memo, which requires companies to serve up a high ranking employee in order for the company to get cooperation credit in a criminal investigation. I blogged about my concerns about the Memo’s effect on the attorney-client relationship here, stating:
The Yates memo raises a lot of questions. What does this mean in practice for compliance officers and in house counsel? How will this development change in-house investigations? Will corporate employees ask for their own counsel during investigations or plead the 5th since they now run a real risk of being criminally and civilly prosecuted by DOJ? Will companies have to pay for separate counsel for certain employees and must that payment be disclosed to DOJ? What impact will this memo have on attorney-client privilege? How will the relationship between compliance officers and their in-house clients change? Compliance officers are already entitled to whistleblower awards from the SEC provided they meet certain criteria. Will the Yates memo further complicate that relationship between the compliance officer and the company if the compliance personnel believe that the company is trying to shield a high profile executive during an investigation?
The US Chamber of Commerce shares my concerns and issued a report last month that echoes the thoughts of a number of defense attorneys I know. I will be discussing these themes and the Dodd-Frank Whistleblower aspect at the International Legal Ethics Conference on July 14th at Fordham described below:
Current Trends in Prosecutorial Ethics and Regulation
Ellen Yaroshefsky, Cardozo School of Law (US) (Moderator); Tamara Lave, University of Miami Law School (US); Marcia Narine, St. Thomas University School of Law (US);Lawrence Hellman, Oklahoma City University School of Law (US); Lissa Griffin, Pace University Law School (US); Kellie Toole, Adelaide Law School (Australia); and Eric Fish,Yale Law School (US)
Nationally and internationally, prosecutors' offices face new, as well as ongoing, challenges and their exercise of discretion significantly affects individuals and entities. This panel will explore a wide range of issues confronting the modern prosecutor. This will include certain ethical obligations in handling cases, organizational responsibility for wrongful convictions, the impact of the exercise of prosecutorial discretion in whistleblower cases, and the cultural shifts in prosecutors' offices.
To be clear, I believe that more corporate employees must go to jail to punish if not deter abuses. But I think that these mechanisms are the wrong way to accomplish that goal and may have a chilling effect on the internal investigations that are vital to rooting out wrongdoing. If you have any thoughts about these topics, please leave them below or email me at firstname.lastname@example.org. My talk and eventual paper will also address the relationship between Sarbanes-Oxley, the state ethical rules, and the Catch-22 that in house counsel face because of the conflicting rules and the realities of modern day corporate life.
July 1, 2016 in Compliance, Conferences, Corporate Governance, Corporations, Current Affairs, Ethics, Financial Markets, Lawyering, Marcia Narine, Securities Regulation, White Collar Crime | Permalink | Comments (1)
Wednesday, June 29, 2016
Former Delaware Chancellor William (Bill) Chandler and Elizabeth Hecker, a fellow lawyer at Wilson Sonsini Goodrich & Rosati presented on benefit corporations and Delaware law at the Berle VIII conference. I cannot fully communicate how exciting it was to hear a distillation of Delaware law generally and several opinions specifically from a judge involved in the cases. In short: it was thrilling.
Former Chancellor Chandler discussed the Delaware case law interpretation of shareholder value and its place in analyzing corporate transactions. While these aren't words that he used, I have been thinking a lot about this tension as a question of complimenting or competing. The simple message was that the "inc." behind corporate names means something. But the question, is what does that mean? It signals, among other things, that a Delaware court will invalidate a board of directors' other serving actions only if they are in conflict with shareholder value, but never when it is complimentary. And there is a expanding appreciation of when "other interests" are seen as complimentary to, and not in competition with, shareholder value maximization.
Former Chancellor Chandler reminded us that shareholder value can include long term interests as the Delaware Chancery Court concluded in February 2011 in the Airgas case where Delaware upheld a board's defensive actions taken, in part, on the belief that the offer didn't include the full long-term value. The Airgas opinion is available here. The original $5.9B bid for Airgas, which the BOD said, despite an informed shareholder vote in its favor, didn't capture the full value of the company. The market validated Airgas' board's position and the Delaware court's adoption of that view. Airgas completed its merger with Air Liquide in May, 2016 for $10.3B.
Tuesday, June 28, 2016
SEC Chair Mary Jo White yesterday presented the keynote address, for the International Corporate Governance Network Annual Conference, "Focusing the Lens of Disclosure to Set the Path Forward on Board Diversity, Non-GAAP, and Sustainability." The full speech is available here.
In reading the speech, I found that I was talking to myself at various spots (I do that from time to time), so I thought I'd turn those thoughts into an annotated version of the speech. In the excerpt below, I have added my comments in brackets and italics. These are my initial thoughts to the speech, and I will continue to think these ideas through to see if my impression evolves. Overall, as is often the case with financial and other regulation, I found myself agreeing with many of the goals, but questioning whether the proposed methods were the right way to achieve the goals. Here's my initial take:
June 28, 2016 in Corporate Finance, Corporate Governance, Corporations, Current Affairs, Financial Markets, Joshua P. Fershee, Securities Regulation, Shareholders, Social Enterprise | Permalink | Comments (1)
Monday, June 27, 2016
I am still at Berle VIII with Haskell Murray and Anne Tucker. One more day of my June Scholarship and Teaching Tour to go--and I have a final presentation to do. Then, back to Knoxville to stay until late in July. Whew!
As you may recall or know, my Berle appearance this week follows closely on the heels of a talk on the same work (on corporate purpose and litigation risk in publicly held U.S. benefit corporations) that I made at last week's 2016 National Business Law Scholars conference. While I am thinking about this conference, please join me in saving the date for the next one: the 2017 National Business Law Scholars conference. Next year's conference will be held June 8-9 at The University of Utah S. J. Quinney College of Law, with Jeff Schwartz hosting. I will post more information and the call for papers, etc. once I have it.
June 27, 2016 in Anne Tucker, Business Associations, Conferences, Corporate Finance, Corporate Governance, Corporate Personality, Corporations, CSR, Haskell Murray, Joan Heminway, Research/Scholarhip, Teaching | Permalink | Comments (0)
Friday, June 24, 2016
Recently, I came across this discussion on Poverty Inc. by Bill Easterly (NYU Economics) and the film's creators (Michael Matheson Miller and Mark Weber). I posted on one of Bill Easterly's books here.
In the discussion at NYU, I especially liked this quote from Michael Matheson Miller: "We tend to treat poor people as objects--as objects of our charity, objects of our pity, objects of our compassion.--instead of subjects...Poor people are not objects; they are subjects and they should be the protagonists in their own stories of development." The personal story Mark Weber tells of his trip while he was studying at Notre Dame was moving, but you will have to watch the discussion to hear it, as it would be tough to summarize. Some of the audience questions are a bit long-winded, but I think the panel does a nice job deciphering and answering.
The film's trailer, the discussion, and the Q&A with the audience are all worth watching.
Thursday, June 23, 2016
The Cuba Conundrum: Corporate Governance and Compliance Challenges for U.S. Publicly-Traded Companies
My latest article on Cuba and the US is out. Here I explore corporate governance and compliance issues for US companies. In May, I made my third trip to Cuba in a year to do further research on rule of law and investor concerns for my current work in progress.
In the meantime, please feel free to email me your comments or thoughts at email@example.com on my latest piece
The abstract is below:
The list of companies exploring business opportunities in Cuba reads like a who’s who of household names- Starwood Hotels, Netflix, Jet Blue, Carnival, Google, and AirBnB are either conducting business or have publicly announced plans to do so now that the Obama administration has normalized relations with Cuba. The 1962 embargo and the 1996 Helm-Burton Act remain in place, but companies are preparing for or have already been taking advantage of the new legal exemptions that ban business with Cuba. Many firms, however, may not be focusing on the corporate governance and compliance challenges of doing business in Cuba. This Essay will briefly discuss the pitfalls related to doing business with state-owned enterprises like those in Cuba; the particular complexity of doing business in Cuba; and the challenges of complying with US anti-bribery and whistleblower laws in the totalitarian country. I will also raise the possibility that Cuba will return to a state of corporatism and the potential impact that could have on compliance and governance programs. I conclude that board members have a fiduciary duty to ensure that their companies comply with existing US law despite these challenges and recommend a code of conduct that can be used for Cuba or any emerging markets which may pose similar difficulties.
June 23, 2016 in Comparative Law, Compliance, Corporate Governance, Corporations, CSR, Current Affairs, Human Rights, International Business, Law Reviews, Marcia Narine, Research/Scholarhip | Permalink | Comments (0)
Wednesday, June 22, 2016
Today is the rare day where I feel like a professor. Dressed in jeans and drinking coffee in my office, I have been reading Colin Mayer's book Firm Commitment in advance of the Berle VIII Symposium in Seattle next week (you can also see Haskell's post & Joan's post about Berle). That's not a typo, my agenda for the day is reading. And not for a paper or to prep for class, I am just reading a book--cover to cover. I can hardly contain my joy at this.
I have been struck by the elegantly simple idea that corporations' true benefit is to advance (and therefore) balance commitment and control. I have long viewed the corporate binary as between accountability and control. Under my framework the two are necessary to balance and contribute to the checks and balances within the corporate power puzzle of making the managers, who control the corporation, accountable to the shareholders. Colin Mayer posits that the one directional accountability of the corporation to shareholders without reciprocity of commitment from the shareholders to the corporation is a corrosive element in corporate design.
"The most significant source of failure is the therefore that we have created a system of shareholder value driven companies who detrimental effects regulation is supposed to but fails to correct, and in response we week greater regulation as the only instrument that we believe can address the problem. We are therefore entering a cycle of the pursuit of ever-narrower shareholder interests moderated by steadily more intrusive but ineffective regulation."
In developing the notions of commitment and control, I have found the following passages particularly thought-provoking:
"The financial structure of the corporation is of critical importance...The commitment of owners derives from the capital that is employed in the corporation. What is held within it is fundamentally different from what remains outside as the private property of its owners. What is distributed to owners as dividends is no longer available as protection against adverse financial conditions and what is provided in the form of debt from banks and bondholders as against equity form shareholders is secure only as long as the corporation has the means with which to service it."
"While incentives and control are centre stage in conventional economics, commitment is not. Enhancing choice, competition, and liquidity is the economist's prescription for improving social welfare, and legal contracts, competition policy and regulation are their basic toolkit for achieving it. Eliminate restrictions on consumers' freedom to choose, firms' ability to compete, and financial markets' provision of liquidity and we can all move closer to economic nirvana. Of course, economics recognizes the problems of time inconsistency in us doing today what yesterday we promised we would not conceive of doing today; of reputations in us continuing to do today what we promised to do yesterday for fear of not being able to do it tomorrow, and of capital and collateral in making it expensive for us to deviate from what we said yesterday we would do today and tomorrow. But these are anomalies. Economics does not recognize the fundamental role of commitment in all aspects of our commercial as well as our social lives and the way in which institutions contribute to the creation and preservation of commitment. It does not appreciate the full manner in which choice, competition and liquidity undermine commitment or the fact that institutions are not simply mechanisms for reducing costs of transaction, but on the contrary means to establish and enhance commitment at the expense of choice, competition, and liquidity. Commitment is the subject of soft sentimental sociologists, not of realistic rational economists. The sociologists' are the words of Shakespeare's 'Love all, trust few. Do wrong to none', the economists' those of Lenin: 'Trust is good, control is better.'"
Tuesday, June 21, 2016
Last week, a federal court determined that an insurance disclosure that asked about an "applicant's" criminal history did not apply to an LLC member's individual criminal past. In Jeb Stuart Auction Servs., LLC v. W. Am. Ins. Co., No. 4:14-CV-00047, 2016 WL 3365495, at *1 (W.D. Va. June 16, 2016), the court explained:
“Question Eight” on the [insurance] application asked, “DURING THE LAST FIVE YEARS (TEN IN RI), HAS ANY APPLICANT BEEN INDICTED FOR OR CONVICTED OF ANY DEGREE OF THE CRIME OF FRAUD, BRIBERY, ARSON OR ANY OTHER ARSON-RELATED CRIME IN CONNECTION WITH THIS OR ANY OTHER PROPERTY?” Hiatt, on behalf of Jeb Stuart (who [sic] was the sole [LLC] applicant for the insurance policy), answered, “No.” Hiatt signed the application and left.
As you might imagine, Hiatt had been convicted of "hiring individuals to wreck cars so that he could receive the proceeds from the applicable insurance policies," and, yep, about a month later, the building burned down. Id. at *2.
The insurance company cancelled the policy because it claimed Hiatt had lied on the application, and Hiatt sued for the improper cancellation of the policy because he did not lie (he prevailed) and for attorneys fees claiming “the insurer, not acting in good faith, has either denied coverage or failed or refused to make payment to the insured under the policy.” Id. at *3. Judge Kiser determined that not attorneys' fees were warranted:
Neither party was able to rely on a case on point regarding the issue of whether questions on an LLC's insurance application asking about criminal history applied to the members of the LLC, to the corporate entity, or to both. Although I believe the answer to that question is clear, I am not aware of any other court being called upon to answer it. Therefore, although it was unsuccessful in asserting its defense to Jeb Stuart's claim, West American's position did present a novel legal question. As such, the final Norman factor weighs in favor of a finding of good faith.
Monday, June 20, 2016
Having helped a few Tennessee bar applicants get straight on their knowledge of agency, unincorporated business associations, and personal property law last Friday at my BARBRI lecture (such a nice group present at the taping to keep me company!), it's now time for me to wrap up my June Scholarship and Teaching Tour with a twofer--a week of travel to two of my favorite U.S. cities: Chicago, for the National Business Law Scholars Conference and Seattle for Berle VIII. At both events, I will present my draft paper (still in process today, unfortunately) on publicly held benefit corporations, Corporate Purpose and Litigation Risk in Publicly Held U.S. Benefit Corporations. Here's the bird's-eye view from the introduction:
Benefit corporations—corporations organized for the express purpose of realizing both financial wealth for shareholders and articulated social or environmental benefits—have taken the United States by storm. With Maryland passing the first benefit corporation statute in 2010, legislative growth of the form has been rapid. Currently, 31 states have passed benefit corporation statutes.
The proliferation of benefit corporation statutes and B Corp certifications can largely be attributed to the active promotional work of B Lab Company, a nonprofit corporation organized in 2006 under Pennsylvania law that supports social enterprise (“B Lab”). B Lab works with individuals and interest groups to generate attention to social enterprise generally and awareness of and support for the benefit corporation form and B Corp certification (a social enterprise seal of approval, of sorts) specifically. B Lab also supplies model benefit corporation legislation, social enterprise standards that may meet the requirements of benefit corporation statutes in various states, and other services to social enterprises.
Benefit corporation statutes have not, by and large, been the entity law Field of Dreams. Despite the legislative popularity of the benefit corporation form, there have not been as many benefit corporation incorporations as one might expect. In the first four years of benefit corporation authority, for example, Maryland reported the existence of fewer than 40 benefit corporations in total. Tennessee’s benefit corporation statute came into effect in January 2016, and as of May 2, 2016, Secretary of State filings evidence the organization of 26 for-profit benefit corporations. However, a review of these filings suggests that well more than half were erroneously organized as benefit corporations. Colorado, another recent adopter of the benefit corporation, does appear to have a large number of filings (90 in total as of June 12, 2016 based on the list of Colorado benefit corporations on the B Lab website). However, as with Tennessee, a number of these listed corporations appear to be erroneously classified. These anecdotal offerings indicate that published lists of benefit corporations—even those constructed from state filings—over-count the number of benefit corporations significantly.
Research for this article identified no publicly held U.S. benefit corporations. For these purposes (and as referenced throughout this article), the term “publicly held” in reference to a corporation is defined to mean a corporation (a) with a class of equity securities registered under Section 12 of the Securities Exchange Act of 1934, as amended (“1934 Act”), or (b) otherwise required to file periodic reports with the Securities and Exchange Commission under Section 13 of the 1934 Act. Yet, benefit corporations may be subsidiaries of publicly held corporations (as Ben & Jerry's Homemade Inc., New Chapter Inc., and Plum, PBC have demonstrated), and corporations certified as B Corps have begun to enter the ranks of publicly held corporations (perhaps Etsy, Inc. being the most well known to date). It likely is only a matter of time before we will see the advent of publicly held U.S. benefit corporations.
With the likely prospect of publicly held U.S. benefit corporations in mind, this article engages in a thought experiment. Specifically, this article views the publicly held U.S. benefit corporation from the perspective of litigation risk. It first situates, in Part I, the U.S. benefit corporation in its structural and governance context as an incorporated business association. Corporate purpose and the attendant managerial authority and fiduciary duties are the key points of reference. Then, in Part II, the article seeks to identify the unique litigation risks associated with publicly held corporations with the structural and governance attributes of a benefit corporation. These include both state and federal causes of action. The reflections in Part III draw conclusions from the synthesis of the observations made in Parts I and II. The closing thoughts in Part III are intended to be of use to policy makers, academic observers, and advisers of corporations, among others.
As Haskell mentioned in an earlier post, he and Anne and I will be together at the Berle VIII event. What a great way to end my June tour--with my friends and colleagues from the Business Law Prof Blog! I look forward to it.
Friday, June 17, 2016
On Wednesday, the EU finally outlined its position on conflict minerals. The proposed rule will affect approximately 900,000 businesses. As I have discussed here, these “name and shame” disclosure rules are premised on the theories that: 1) companies have duty to respect human rights by conducting due diligence in their supply chains; 2) companies that source minerals from conflict zones contribute financially to rebels or others that perpetuate human rights abuses; and 3) if consumers and other stakeholders know that companies source certain minerals from conflict zones they will change their buying habits or pressure companies to source elsewhere.
As stated in earlier blog posts, the US Dodd- Frank rule has been entangled in court battles for years and the legal wranglings are not over yet. Dodd-Frank Form SD filings were due on May 31st and it is too soon to tell whether there has been improvement over last year’s disclosures in which many companies indicated that the due diligence process posed significant difficulties.
I am skeptical about most human rights disclosure rules in general because they are a misguided effort to solve the root problem of business’ complicity with human rights abuses and assume that consumers care more about ethical sourcing than they report in surveys. Further, there are conflicting views on the efficacy of Dodd-Frank in particular. Some, like me, argue that it has little effect on the Congolese people it was designed to help. Others such as the law’s main proponent Enough, assert that the law has had a measurable impact.
The EU's position on conflict minerals is a compromise and many NGOs such as Amnesty International, an organization I greatly respect, are not satisfied. Like its US counterpart, the EU rule requires reporting on tin, tantalum, tungsten, and gold, which are used in everything from laptops, cameras, jewelry, light bulbs and component parts. Unlike Dodd-Frank, the rule only applies to large importers, smelters, and refiners but it does apply to a wider zone than the Democratic Republic of Congo and the adjoining countries. The EU rule applies to all “conflict zones” around the world.
Regular readers of my blog posts know that I teach and research on business and human rights, and I have focused on corporate accountability measures. I have spent time in both Democratic Republic of Congo and Guatemala looking at the effect of extractive industries on local communities through the lens of an academic and as a former supply chain executive for a Fortune 500 company. I continue to oppose these disclosure rules because they take governments off the hook for drafting tough, substantive legislation. Nonetheless, I look forward to seeing what lessons if any that the EU has learned from the US when the member states finally implement and enforce the new rule. In coming weeks I will blog on recent Form SD disclosures and the progress of the drafting of the final EU rule.
June 17, 2016 in Compliance, Corporate Governance, Corporations, CSR, Current Affairs, Financial Markets, Human Rights, International Law, Legislation, Marcia Narine, Securities Regulation | Permalink | Comments (0)