Monday, November 28, 2016

Last Class? Coggins to the Rescue!

Today, I share a quick teaching tip/suggestion.

I taught my last classes of the semester earlier today.  For my Business Associations class, which met at 8:00 am, I was looking for a way to end the class meeting, tying things from the past few classes up in some way.  I settled on using the facts from a case that I used to cover in a former casebook that is not in my current course text:  Coggins  et al. v. New England Patriots Football Club, Inc., et al.  Here are the facts I presented:

  • New England Patriots Football Club, Inc. (“NEPFC”), the corporation that owns the New England Patriots, has both voting and nonvoting shares of stock outstanding.
  • The former president and owner of all of the voting shares of NEPFC, Sullivan, takes out a personal loan that only can be repaid if he owns all of the NEPFC stock outstanding.
  • The board and Sullivan vote to merge NEPFC with and into a new corporation in which Sullivan would own all the shares.
  • In the merger, holders of the nonvoting shares receive $15 per share for their common stock cashed out in the merger.

From this, I noted that three legal actions are common when shareholders are discontented with a cash-out merger transaction: appraisal actions, derivative actions for breach of fiduciary duty, and securities fraud actions.  Shareholders in NEPFC brought all three types of action.  (Footnote 9 of the Coggins case and the accompanying text explain that.)  

Having just covered business combinations, including approval and appraisal rights, and wanting to address some new information about the process of derivative litigation, the facts from the case worked well.  I am sure there are other cases or materials that also could have done the job.  (Feel free to leave suggestions in the comments.)  But adding a little football and conflicting interests to the last class seemed like the right idea . . . .

 

 

November 28, 2016 in Business Associations, Corporations, Joan Heminway, M&A, Teaching | Permalink | Comments (0)

Thursday, November 24, 2016

Can "Doing Good" Pay Off for Carnival Cruise Line?

Happy Thanksgiving from the Dominican Republic. I'm blogging from the Fathom Adonia, Carnival's fledgling social impact cruise line. I've spent the past few days in Puerto Plata teaching English in schools and local communities. Other passengers worked on reforestation projects, built water filtration systems, installed concrete floors in homes, worked with women on cocoa farms, and learned how to recycle paper with local workers. Passengers can  also do typical excursions such as zip lining and snorkeling, or can lounge around in the $80 million dollar Amber Cove built up like a resort. But most people come on this cruise for the volunteer activities and don't expect frills (our bus got stuck in the mud and we needed pig farmers in a truck to help push us out on the way back from teaching English 75 minutes outside of town). Fathom has restaurants, a spa, dancing, bars, onboard activities such as wine and paint, extremely friendly staff, and enthusiastic, young "impact guides" but no Vegas-style shows and only carries approximately 700 passengers.

Carnival has banked on profiting from people's stated desire to do good in the world. Lots of surveys support this idea in theory. However, as regular readers of this blog know, I have written several posts skeptical of those who claim to care about corporate social responsibility, but choose to buy based on convenience, quality, and price. I have also repeatedly and publicly acknowledged that I am one of those people who selectively boycotts products and vendors. Although the idea of a social impact cruise line excited me, I wondered about whether It would succeed when I first heard of it because most people I know want to relax and not work on a vacation.

Unfortunately, it appears that Carnival's bet may not be paying off. Yesterday, the Miami Herald had an article discussing the future of the social impact product. Apparently, the Fathom, which also goes to Cuba, may stop doing these impact cruises, although Carnival promises that passengers will have "voluntourism" opportunities on its other cruise lines. Carnival also plans to continue its trips to Cuba on a different line starting next summer.

This change in direction, if true, does not surprise me. The Fathom trips to the Dominican Republic have never sold out, even at prices that are one third the price of the Cuba trip- my husband and I paid less than $1000 between the two of us for a seven day cruise, and were upgraded because they had capacity. We learned from one of Fathom's partners on the ground that there have been layoffs in Puerto Plata  because they don't have enough volunteers traveling on the ship. Fathom has even had to cancel some of the sailings altogether. 

Although the trips have not been popular with the masses, everyone that I have met on this trip has raved about their activities (particularly the English teaching) and the interactions with the warm Dominican people. Carnival may have hoped that word of mouth would suffice and that they wouldn't need heavy marketing. It's possible that Carnival believed all of the surveys of millennials who claim they want to change the world. Either way, it appears that there won't be a cruise line dedicated to social impact after next summer. That will be a huge loss for Puerto Plata and for those who want this kind of experience and are willing to pay to work with reputable, caring organizations.

I'm pulling for Fathom to survive in some form and for this idea to spread to other cruise lines. My husband and I both found that teaching English to 5th graders in a crowded classroom in a rain storm was the best Thanksgiving we have ever spent. When the students and volunteers spoke about the expeierence at the end of today's tutoring, there wasn't a dry eye in the house. That may not be profitable for Carnival, but it was priceless for those of us who experienced it. 

November 24, 2016 in Corporations, CSR, Marcia Narine Weldon, Social Enterprise, Travel | Permalink | Comments (0)

Thursday, November 10, 2016

Eleven Corporate Governance and Compliance Questions for President-Elect Trump

I have been on hiatus for a few weeks, and had planned to post today about the compliance and corporate governance issues related to Wells Fargo. However, I have decided to delay posting on that topic in light of the unexpected election results and how it affects my research and work.

I am serving as a panelist and a moderator at the ABA's annual Labor and Employment meeting tomorrow. Our topic is Advising Clients in Whistleblower Investigations. In our discussions and emails prior to the conference, we never raised the election in part because, based on the polls, no one expected Donald Trump to win. Now, of course, we have to address this unexpected development in light of the President-elect's public statements that he plans to dismantle much of President Obama's legacy, including a number of his executive orders.

President-elect Trump's plan for his first 100 days includes, among other things: a hiring freeze on all federal employees to reduce federal workforce though attrition (exempting military, public safety, and public health); a requirement that for every new federal regulation, two existing regulations must be eliminated; renegotiation or withdrawal from NAFTA; withdrawal from the Trans-Pacific Partnership; canceling "every unconstitutional executive action, memorandum and order issued by President Obama; and a number of rules related to lobbyists and special interests.

Plaintiffs' lawyers I have spoken to at this conference so far are pessimistic that standards will become even more pro-business and thus more difficult to bring cases. That's probably true. However,  I have the following broader business-law related questions:

  1. What will happen to Dodd-Frank? There are already a number of house bills pending to repeal parts of Dodd-Frank, but will President Trump actually try to repeal all of it, particularly the Dodd-Frank whistleblower rule? How would that look optically? Former SEC Commissioner Paul Atkins, a prominent critic of Dodd-Frank and the whistleblower program in particular, is part of Trump's transition team on economic issues, so perhaps a revision, at a minumum, may not be out of the question.
    2. What will happen with the two SEC commissioner vacancies? How will this president and Congress fund the agency?
    3. Will SEC Chair Mary Jo White stay or go and how might that affect the work of the agency to look at disclosure reform?
    4. How will the vow to freeze the federal workforce affect OSHA, which enforces Sarbanes-Oxley?
    5. In addition to the issues that Trump has with TPP and NAFTA, how will his administration and the Congress deal with the Export-Import (Ex-IM) bank, which cannot function properly as it is due to resistance from some in Congress. Ex-Im provides financing, export credit insurance, loans, and other products to companies (including many small businesses) that wish to do business in politically-risky countries.
    6. How will a more conservative Supreme Court deal with the business cases that will appear before it?
    7. Who will be the Attorney General and how might that affect criminal prosecution of companies and individuals? Should we expect a new memo or revision of policies for Assistant US Attorneys that might undo some of the work of the Yates Memo, which focuses on corporate cooperation and culpable individuals?
    8. What will happen with the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, which the DC Circuit recently ruled was unconstitutional in terms of its structure and power?
    9. What will happen with the Obama administration's executive orders on Cuba, which have chipped away at much of the embargo? The business community has lobbied hard on ending the embargo and eliminating restrictions, but Trump has pledged to require more from the Cuban government. Would he also cancel the executive orders as well?
    10. What happens to the Public Company Accounting Board, which has had an interim director for several months?
    11. Jeb Henserling, who has adamantly opposed Ex-Im, the CFPB, and Dodd-Frank is under consideration for Treasury Secretary. What does this say about President-elect Trump's economic vision?

Of course, there are many more questions and I have no answers but I will be interested to see how future announcements affect the world financial markets, which as of the time of this writing appear to have calmed down.

November 10, 2016 in Compliance, Corporate Governance, Corporations, Current Affairs, Financial Markets, International Law, Legislation, Marcia Narine Weldon, Securities Regulation, White Collar Crime | Permalink | Comments (2)

Wednesday, November 9, 2016

Director Primacy and the BJR: Reconciling Strine v. Signatories

Prof. Bainbridge the other day commented on the following, which is item 10 from the Modern Corporation Statement on Company Law (available here):  

Contrary to widespread belief, corporate directors generally are not under a legal obligation to maximise profits for their shareholders. This is reflected in the acceptance in nearly all jurisdictions of some version of the business judgment rule, under which disinterested and informed directors have the discretion to act in what they believe to be in the best long term interests of the company as a separate entity, even if this does not entail seeking to maximise short-term shareholder value. Where directors pursue the latter goal, it is usually a product not of legal obligation, but of the pressures imposed on them by financial markets, activist shareholders, the threat of a hostile takeover and/or stock-based compensation schemes.

Bainbridge take a contrary position, citing Delaware Supreme Court Chief Justice Strine, who says, "a clear-eyed look at the law of corporations in Delaware reveals that, within the limits of their discretion, directors must make stockholder welfare their sole end, and that other interests may be taken into consideration only as a means of promoting stockholder welfare." Strine further notes that "advocates for corporate social responsibility pretend that directors do not have to make stockholder welfare the sole end of corporate governance, within the limits of their legal discretion."

I read these positions as consistent, though I think the scope of what is permissible is certainly implicitly different. I agree that Strine is right to say that "directors must make stockholder welfare their sole end."  But I also agree that "disinterested and informed directors have the discretion to act in what they believe to be in the best long term interests of the company as a separate entity." My read of the business judgment rule (BJR) is that, absent fraud, illegality, or self-dealing, courts should abstain from reviewing director decisions, meaning that the directors decide what"stockholder welfare" means and what ends to use in pursuit of that end.  That is, I think it's wrong to say "directors generally are not under a legal obligation to maximise profits for their shareholders," but I do think directors usually get to decide what it means to "maximise profits." 

I am a firm believer in director primacy, and I believe directors should have a lot of latitude in their choices, subject to the BJR requirements.  Thus, if a plaintiff can show self dealing (like maybe via giving to a "pet charity" described in A.P. Smith v. Barlow), then the BJR might be rebutted (if the gift is inconsistent with state law and/or constituency statutes).   But otherwise, it's the board's call. Furthermore, where a company builds its brand and acts consistently with its prior actions, that might expand the scope of permissible behavior for a company (i.e., not be evidence of self-dealing).  Thus, companies like Tom's Shoes and Ben and Jerry's should be able to continue to operate as they always have when they bring in new directors, because what might look like self-dealing in another context, is consistent with the business model.  

eBay v. Newmark (pdf here) is often used to rebut that notion, but I still maintain that case is really about self-dealing  -- the actions taken by Jim and Craig were impermissible not because they were working toward "purely philanthropic ends," but because they took actions that benefited themselves to the detriment of their minority shareholder, such as use of poison pills).  

Anyway, I am still a believer in the BJR as abstention doctrine.  Show me some fraud, illegality, or self-dealing or I'm leaving the board's decision alone. 

November 9, 2016 in Corporate Governance, Corporations, CSR, Delaware, Joshua P. Fershee | Permalink | Comments (1)

Tuesday, November 8, 2016

Teaching Corporate Fiduciary Duty Law; Teaching Complexity

Each year, I rethink how I teach fiduciary duties in the corporate law context in my Business Associations course.  My learning objectives for the students are both limited and involved.  On the one hand, there's little room in my three-credit-hour course for a nuanced understanding of all of the contexts in which corporate fiduciary duty claims typically occur.  In particular, I have determined to leave out the public company mergers and acquisitions context almost completely.  On the other hand, I find myself juggling uncertain classifications of duty components, explanations of seemingly mismatched standards of conduct and liability, and judicial review standards in and outside the Delaware corporate law context.  It's a handful.  It's teaching complexity.

Of course, fiduciary duty is not the only complex matter that one must teach in Business Associations.  But it is, for me, one of the topics I am least confident that I "get right" in my interactions with students in and outside the classroom.  Accordingly, as I again head toward the end of the semester, I find myself wondering whether I could have done--or could do--more with the students in my Business Associations course this semester.  This leads me to ask my fellow business law professors (that's you!) whether any of you have materials, teaching techniques, exercises (in-class or out-of-class), etc. that you find to be particularly effective in educating law students the basics and nuances of corporate fiduciary duties.  

So, have at it!  Share your corporate fiduciary duty teaching successes in the comments, if you would.  I am all ears.  I know that what you report will benefit me and others (including our students), and I hope that your comments will generate a continuing conversation . . . .

 

November 8, 2016 in Business Associations, Corporate Governance, Corporations, Joan Heminway | Permalink | Comments (7)

Wednesday, November 2, 2016

Ripped from the Headlines: GE & Baker Hughes Proposed Merger

General Electric (GE)  and Baker Hughes (BHI) announced on Monday, October 31st, a proposed merger to combine their oil and gas operations.  GE and Baker Hughes will form a partnership, which will own a publicly-traded company.   GE shareholders will own 62.5% of the "new" partnership, while Baker Hughes shareholders will own 37.5% and receive a one-time cash dividend of $17.50 per share.  The new company will have 9 board of director seats:  5 from GE and 4 from Baker Hughes.  GE CEO Jeff Immelt will be the chairman of the new company and Lorenzo Simonelli,  CEO of GE Oil & Gas, will be CEO. Baker Hughes CEO Martin Craighead will be vice chairman.

Reuters is describing the business synergies between the two companies as leveraging GE's oilfield equipment manufacturing ("supplying blowout preventers, pumps and compressors used in exploration and production") and data process services with Baker Hughes' expertise in " horizontal drilling, chemicals used to frack and other services key to oil production."

Baker Hughes had previously proposed a merger with Halliburton (HAL), which failed in May, 2016, after the Justice Department filed an antitrust suit to block the merger. Early analysis suggests that the proposed GE & Baker Hughes will pass regulatory scrutiny because of the limited business overlap of GE and Baker Hughes.

As I plan to tell my corporations students later today: this is real life!  A high-profile, late-semester merger of two public companies is a wonderful gift.  The proposed GE/Baker Hughes merger illustrates, in real life, concepts we have been discussing (or will be soon) like partnerships, the proxy process, special shareholder meetings, SEC filings, abstain or disclose rules, and, of course, mergers.

 

Continue reading

November 2, 2016 in Anne Tucker, Corporate Finance, Corporations, Current Affairs, Law School, M&A, Partnership, Securities Regulation | Permalink | Comments (0)

Tuesday, November 1, 2016

NY Court Refuses to Bail Out Sophisticated Party Via Veil Piercing

I often complain about courts and their unwillingness to require plaintiffs to make appropriate claims about veil piercing in the context of limited liability companies (LLCs).  That is, courts too often allow plaintiffs to seek to "pierce the corporate veil" of LLCs, which (of course) do not have corporate veils.  They have limited liability veils, but they are decidedly not corporate.  I will complain about that again, but in the process, I will note that the court does a great job of general veil piercing analysis that is worthy noting.  
 
In Skanska USA Bldg. Inc. v. Atl. Yards B2 Owner, LLC, on Oct. 20, 2016, the Supreme Court, Appellate Division, First Department, New York, decided to dismiss a veil piercing claim based on what I see as very sound reasoning.  I would have like the court to note it was not a corporation, and instead an LLC, that the plaintiff sought to pierce, but nonetheless, I think the court got the rest right.  The court found that the plaintiff failed to plead a sufficient veil-piercing claim and explained, "both parties were very sophisticated, and negotiated in minute detail all aspects of their agreements to build [defendant] using innovative technology. That the project failed does not lead to a veil-piercing claim, especially since plaintiff failed to identify the alleged fraud or other wrongdoing. Skanska USA Bldg. Inc. v. Atl. Yards B2 Owner, LLC, No. 1352, 2016 WL 6106652, at *1 (N.Y. App. Div. Oct. 20, 2016) (emphasis added). 
 
The court continued:
Far from alleging that FCRC used B2 Owner to perpetrate a fraud, plaintiff, a sophisticated party, admits that it knowingly entered into the CM Agreement with B2 Owner, an entity formed to construct the project. Nowhere in the complaint does plaintiff allege that it believed it was contracting with or had rights vis-à-vis FCRC or any entity other than B2 Owner. Indeed, plaintiff could have negotiated for such rights. Having failed to do so, plaintiff cannot now claim that it was tricked into contracting with B2 owner only and thus should be allowed to assert claims against FCRC . . . . Thus, the veil-piercing claim should be dismissed.

Id. at *7.
 
I think this is spot on. Far too often courts seem to give credence to veil-piercing claims that seem predicated primarily on a lack of ability to pay or the fact that there is a financially sound parent company.  That is simply not the standard.  This is not true only for sophisticated parties, but it is especially true of them. Although I feel badly for an entity that is not able to recover all it is owed, I do not think courts should provide what amounts to a guarantee from another entity when such resources were neither promised nor bargained for in the contracting process. Judge Acosta got this part right.  Now if he would just be sure to distinguish veil piercing by entity ... 
  
 
 

November 1, 2016 in Corporations, Joshua P. Fershee, LLCs | Permalink | Comments (0)

Sunday, October 23, 2016

AALS 2017 Annual Meeting: Overview of Socio-Economics Programs

 

The Association of American Law Schools (AALS) Annual Meeting will be held Tuesday, January 3 – Saturday, January 7, 2017, in San Francisco.  Readers of this blog who may be interested in programs associated with the AALS Section on Socio-Economics & the Society of Socio-Economics should click on the following link for the complete relevant schedule: 

Download Socio-Economic AALS Participants + Descriptions 161018

Specifically, I'd like to highlight the following programs:

On Wednesday, Jan. 4:

9:50 - 10:50 AM Concurrent Sessions:

  1. The Future of Corporate Governance:
    How Do We Get From Here to Where We Need to Go?
    andre cummings (Indiana Tech)                            Steven Ramirez (Loyola - Chicago)
    Lynne Dallas (San Diego) - Co-Moderator        Janis Sarra (British Columbia)
    Kent Greenfield (Boston College)                        Faith Stevelman (New York)
    Daniel Greenwood (Hofstra)                                 Kellye Testy (Dean, Washington)
    Kristin Johnson (Seton Hall)                                 Cheryl Wade (St. John’s ) Co-Moderator
    Lyman Johnson (Washington and Lee)
  2. Socio-Economics and Whistle-Blowers
    William Black (Missouri - KC)                                 Benjamin Edwards (Barry)
    June Carbone (Minnesota) - Moderator             Marcia Narine (St. Thomas)

1:45 - 2:45 PM Concurrent Sessions:

1. What is a Corporation?
Robert Ashford (Syracuse) Moderator                             Stefan Padfield (Akron)
Tamara Belinfanti (New York)                                             Sabeel Rahman (Brooklyn)
Daniel Greenwood (Hofstra)

On Thursday, Jan. 5:

3:30 - 5:15 pm:
Section Programs for New Law Teachers
Principles of Socio-Economics
in Teaching, Scholarship, and Service
Robert Ashford (Syracuse)                                                     Lynne Dallas (San Diego)
William Black (Missouri - Kansas City)                             Michael Malloy (McGeorge)
June Carbone (Minnesota)                                                     Stefan Padfield (Akron)

On Saturday, Jan. 7:

10:30 am - 12:15 pm:
Economics, Poverty, and Inclusive Capitalism
Robert Ashford (Syracuse)                                                     Stefan Padfield (Akron)
Paul Davidson (Founding Editor                                          Delos Putz (San Francisco)
Journal of Post-Keynesian Economics)                             Edward Rubin (Vanderbilt)
Richard Hattwick (Founding Editor,
Journal of Socio-Economics)

October 23, 2016 in Business Associations, Conferences, Corporate Governance, Corporate Personality, Corporations, Current Affairs, Financial Markets, Law and Economics, Law School, Marcia Narine Weldon, Research/Scholarhip, Stefan J. Padfield, Teaching | Permalink | Comments (0)

Wednesday, October 19, 2016

Guest Post: Controlling Shareholders and the Geography of MFW-Land*

 

*The guest post is contributed by Itai Fiegenbaum who teaches corporate law at Tel Aviv University and Ramat Gan College of Law and Business.  

Today's post continues the discussion started by Anne’s informative post regarding the law of controlling stockholders. Anne astutely notes that the MFW “enhanced ratification” framework was rendered in connection with a going private merger. Although I recognize the intuitive appeal, I wish to call into question the impact of MFW’s holding on other manners of controlling shareholder transactions.

Going private transactions differ from going concern transactions in that their successful completion wipes out the minority float. This distinction accelerates stockholders' divergent incentives and raises the possibility for minority stockholder abuse. An unscrupulous controller might structure the transaction in a manner that captures all unlocked value for later private consumption. Going private transactions allow controlling stockholders to shed the restrictions of the public market, thereby evading future retribution by minority stockholders. Policy considerations accordingly call for superior protection of minority stockholders participating in a going private transaction.

Since MFW establishes a procedure for achieving less intrusive judicial review for going private transactions, it stands to reason that this procedure should apply to all transactions involving a controlling stockholder. Indeed, without addressing the distinction between going private and going concern transactions in this context, a fairly recent Chancery Court decision has explicitly opined that the MFW framework applies to all controlling stockholder transactions (In re Ezcorp Inc. Consulting Agreement Derivative Litig., 2016 WL 301245, at *28 (Del. Ch. Jan. 25, 2016)).

In a forthcoming article at the Delaware Journal of Corporate Law, I argue that the borders of "MFW-Land" are not as clear-cut as they appear. The Delaware Supreme Court decision does not create a universally-applicable safe harbor procedure for all manner of controlling stockholder transactions. Two main arguments form the basis of this contention. 

The dual tenets of doctrinal clarity and cohesion underpin the first argument. A careful reading of the MFW decision fails to detect any mention of competing precedent or a general proclamation regarding its applicability to other types of controlling stockholder transactions. MFW is clearly situated on a path of doctrinal evolution of judicial inspection of going private transactions with controlling stockholders. Canons of judicial interpretation counsel against an indirect reversal or modification of established precedent.

Additionally, the theoretical justifications for the MFW decision hold significantly less weight in the going concern context. MFW's doctrinal shift is grounded on the twin pillars representing the competency of independent directors and non-affiliated stockholders. Whatever the validity of these mechanisms in the freeze out context, the legal and financial scholarship does not validate an extension to going concern transactions. Serious flaws hamper the ability of independent directors and non-affiliated stockholders to pass meaningful judgment on going concern transactions. In the final tally, MFW does not produce an all-encompassing framework for all controlling stockholder transactions.

 

October 19, 2016 in Anne Tucker, Corporate Governance, Corporations, Delaware, M&A | Permalink | Comments (0)

Monday, October 17, 2016

Research and Writing Question of the Day . . . .

Assume a state trial court issues an opinion in a particular case and the case is not appealed.  Should a legal scholar using the opinion to support or refute a key point (in the text of a written work) characterize the weight or status of the opinion (e.g., noting that it is a trial court opinion and that is has not been appealed)?  Justify your answer.

If the trial court at issue is the Delaware Chancery Court and the opinion addresses matters under the Delaware General Corporation Law, does that alter your answer?  Why?  Why not?

I am having fun considering these issues today in connection with my work on a symposium paper.  I have not yet decided how to handle the specific matter that raises the questions.  Accordingly, it seemed like a good idea at this juncture to share my questions and seek collaboration in answering them . . . .

October 17, 2016 in Corporate Governance, Corporations, Joan Heminway, Research/Scholarhip, Writing | Permalink | Comments (8)

Thursday, October 13, 2016

Wells Fargo as a Teaching Tool on Corporate Governance

Today I used Wells Fargo as a teaching tool in Business Associations. Using this video from the end of September, I discussed the role of the independent directors, the New York Stock Exchange Listing Standards, the importance of the controversy over separate chair and CEO, 8Ks, and other governance principles. This video discussing ex-CEO Stumpf’s “retirement” allowed me to discuss the importance of succession planning, reputational issues, clawbacks and accountability, and potential SEC and DOJ investigations. This video lends itself nicely to a discussion of executive compensation. Finally, this video provides a preview for our discussion next week on whistleblowers, compliance, and the board’s Caremark duties.

Regular readers of this blog know that in my prior life I served as a deputy general counsel and compliance officer for a Fortune 500 Company. Next week when I am out from under all of the midterms I am grading, I will post a more substantive post on the Wells Fargo debacle. I have a lot to say and I imagine that there will be more fodder to come in the next few weeks. In the meantime, check out this related post by co-blogger Anne Tucker.

October 13, 2016 in Anne Tucker, Business Associations, Compliance, Corporate Governance, Corporations, Current Affairs, Ethics, Marcia Narine Weldon, Teaching | Permalink | Comments (0)

Wednesday, October 12, 2016

Stockholder Approval and the BJR in the Absence of a Controlling Shareholder

I am preparing to teach the doctrine on controlling shareholders in my corporations class tomorrow, and found the recent Delaware opinions on non-controlling shareholder cleansing votes and the BJR to be helpful illustrations of the law in this area.

In summer 2016, the Delaware Court of Chancery dismissed two post-closing actions alleging a breach of fiduciary duty where there was no controlling shareholder in the public companies, where the stockholder cleaning vote was fully informed, and applied the 2015 Corwin business judgment rule standard.  The cases are City of Miami General Employees’ & Sanitation Employees’ Retirement Trust v. Comstock, C.A. No. 9980-CB,  (Del. Ch. Aug. 24, 2016) (Bouchard, C.) and Larkin v. Shah, C.A. No. 10918-VCS, (Del. Ch. Aug. 25, 2016) (Slights, V.C.), both of which relied upon  Corwin v. KKR Financial Holdings, LLC, 125 A.3d 304 (Del. 2015).  (Fellow BLPB blogger Ann Lipton has written about Corwin here).

The Larkin case clarified that Corwin applies to duty of loyalty claims and will be subject to the deferential business judgment rule in post-closing actions challenging non-controller transactions where informed stockholders have approved the transaction.   The Larkin opinion states that:

(1) when disinterested, fully informed, uncoerced stockholders approve a transaction absent a looming conflicted controller, the irrebuttable business judgment rule applies; (2) there was no looming conflicted controller in this case; and (3) the challenged merger was properly approved by disinterested, uncoerced Auspex stockholders. Under the circumstances, the business judgment rule, irrebuttable in this context, applies. ....The standard of review that guides the court’s determination of whether those duties have been violated defaults to a deferential standard, the business judgment rule, which directs the court to presume the board of directors “acted on an informed basis, in good faith and in the honest belief that the action was taken in the best interests of the company.” In circumstances where the business judgment rule applies, Delaware courts will not overturn a board’s decision unless that decision 'cannot be attributed to any rational business purpose.' This broadly permissive standard reflects Delaware’s traditional reluctance to second-guess the business judgment of disinterested fiduciaries absent some independent cause for doubt.  Larkin at 21-22 (internal citations omitted).

Two-sided controller transactions (a freeze out merger where a controlling shareholder stands on both sides of the transaction) is covered by the 2014 Kahn v. M & F Worldwide Corp., 88 A.3d 635(Del. 2014) case, which I summarized in an earlier BLPB post here.

To refresh our readers, the controlling shareholder test is a stockholder who owns a majority of stock. Additionally, a stockholder may qualify as a controller if:

Under Delaware law, a stockholder owning less than half of a company’s outstanding shares may nonetheless be deemed a controller where 'the stockholder can exercise actual control over the corporation’s board.'This “actual control” test requires the court to undertake an analysis of whether, despite owning a minority of shares, the alleged controller wields “such formidable voting and managerial power that, as a practical matter, [it is] no differently situated than if [it] had majority voting control.'A controlling stockholder can exist as a sole actor or a control block of “shareholders, each of whom individually cannot exert control over the corporation . . . [but who] are connected in some legally significant way—e.g., by contract, common ownership agreement, or other arrangement—to work together toward a shared goal.' Larkin at 33-34 (internal citations omitted).

Excellent commentary on theLarkin and Comstock cases and their practical implications can be found on the Harvard Law School Forum on Corporate Governance and Financial Regulation, available here.

-Anne Tucker

 

October 12, 2016 in Ann Lipton, Anne Tucker, Corporate Governance, Corporations, Delaware, M&A, Shareholders | Permalink | Comments (2)

Tuesday, October 4, 2016

Veil Piercing Virgin Island LLCs (Not Corporations)

Here we go again: 

Plaintiff seeks to collect the outstanding balance owed from Defendant Healthcare Enterprises, L.L.C. d/b/a Princesse Pharmacy and Defendant Octavio RX, Enterprises, L.L.C., d/b/a Christian's Pharmacy & Medical Supplies (collectively “Corporate Defendants”) as well as Defendant Christian. (Dkt. No. 13 at 3). Plaintiff alleges that Corporate Defendants “are shell corporations or alter egos of [Defendant] Christian, owner of the different establishments known as Princesse Pharmacy, [and] Christian's Pharmacy & Medical Supplies.”
Cesar Castillo, INC. v. Healthcare Enterprises, L.L.C., CV 2012-108, 2016 WL 5660437, at *1 (D.V.I. Sept. 27, 2016). 
 
So, the "Corporate Defendants" are actually formed as a limited liability company (LLC).  As so often happens, the court get this wrong. This is one of the challenges that come from veil piercing law that treats all such cases a "piercing the corporate veil" instead of "piercing the entity veil" or piecing the veil of limited liability."  The court ultimately dismisses the veiling piercing claim as to Christian individually because there were no factual allegations in the complaint sufficient to support veil piercing.  I would have dismissed it for making an impossible assertion.  Following is the from th complaint: 
The defendants Octavio Rx Enterprises, LLC and Healthcare Enterprises, LLC are shell corporations or alter egos of Gerard Christian, owner of the different establishments known as Princesse Pharmacy, Christian’s Pharmacy & Medical Supplies.
These are LLCs, which cannot be "shell corporations." We're done.  Furthermore, it's not at all clear that the Virgin Islands recognize veil piercing for LLCs. I admit, they almost certainly do, as even when statutes don't mention veil piercing, courts usually adopt it. Still, it would be nice for someone to cite the authority that extend veil piercing to LLCs or state that they are extending the doctrine.  Instead, even the defendant assumes the veil piercing option exists, stating," [A] court will permit the plaintiff to pierce the corporate veil only when it determines that the corporation is 'little more than a legal fiction.' Pearson v. Component Technology Corp., 247 F.3d 471, 485 (3rd Cir.2001)." 
 
This is a case where the complaint gets wrong the entity type, and which then means it messes up how the entity should be analyzed. The defendant's counsel doesn't hold the plaintiff accountable. And the court allows it all.  I think the court did get the outcome right, at least.
 
The thing is, though, if even one of these parties got it right, the whole thing probably ends up right. It's obviously going to be a long road to get this right, but for the record, I am willing to fly to the Virgin Islands to help out.  
 

October 4, 2016 in Corporations, Joshua P. Fershee, LLCs | Permalink | Comments (0)

Monday, September 26, 2016

Diversity & Herstory in the Boardroom

Fresh from the presidential debate,** I find myself writing about board room diversity.*** Over the 2016 summer, SEC Chairwoman Mary Jo White signaled intent to revisit diversity in U.S. boardrooms.  In 2009 the SEC adopted a diversity disclosure rule requiring companies to disclose how their nominating committees considered diversity and whether the company had a diversity policy. The full rule can be viewed here.  The SEC did not define (nor did it mandate a singular definition of ) diversity, and companies have been left to define diversity individually, often without regard to gender, ethnic, racial or religious identities.  The result, criticized by Chairwoman White,  has been vague disclosures without apparent impact. 

SEC diversity rule making (past and future) was the backdrop for a recent corporate governance seminar class where I asked students:  Why should they care about board room diversity? And if the 2009 disclosure rule changes, how should it change? How do other countries approach the issue of boardroom diversity?  Can it be a mandated or legislated endeavor?  To guide our discussion we read  Aaron A Dhir's brilliant and thorough: Challenging Boardroom Homogeneity: Corporate Law, Governance and Diversity and consulted Catalyst.org to understand the panoply of diversity choices from other jurisdictions.  

Dhir's Challenging Boardroom Homogeneity was a helpful and powerful book, equipping students with facts and language to think about and discuss diversity.  Dhir engaged in a qualitative, interview-based methodology to investigate, and ultimately compare the Norwegian quota system with the U.S. diversity disclosure experience.  While noting the costs and the translation problems from Norway to the world writ-large, Dhir interpreted his results as follows: 

"female directors, present in substantial numbers, may enhance the level of cognitive diversity and constructive conflict in the boardroom.  They are more apt to critically analyze, test and challenge received wisdom.  In doing so, they appear to have harnessed for their boards the value of dissent, a key driver of effective governance."

In focusing on the U.S. experience, however, Dhir found that U.S. firms defined diversity in terms of experience not identity, and that this initiative fell short of the goal of encouraging or promoting boardroom diversity.  Dhir recommended that the SEC  define diversity as containing socio-demographic  components and encourage companies to incorporate such considerations in governance by imposing a comply or explain regime in the U.S.  While some have lamented that the SEC's primary challenge is how to define what diversity means, Dhir, through his research and analysis has a pretty good staring point.  Should someone send Chairwoman White a copy of this book? 

More than even the careful methodology, the refreshing comparative perspective and thoughtful recommendations tied to data and observable trends, the book provides a common language to explain the phenomenon of why diversity, as an initiative, is even necessary in the first place. Chapter two engages with a nuanced set of issues, irrefutable fact and explanations of bias--implicit and explicit.  Here I think, more so than even other parts of the book, students connected with the materials linking language to real experiences and observations in their own lives. The attack on the pool problem critique (there aren't enough qualified women and it variant:  we hired the most qualified candidate from our pool) alone warrants my effusive praise for its persuasive presentation and ability to generate thoughtful student debate.

-Anne Tucker

**The debate wasn't the impetus, rather writing this post is just an exercise in settling my nerves before trying to sleep.  

***I have previously written about gender-diversity issues (classroom and boardroom) on the blog here and here.  

September 26, 2016 in Anne Tucker, Compliance, Corporate Governance, Corporations, International Business, Securities Regulation | Permalink | Comments (1)

Thursday, September 22, 2016

What Do Donald Trump, Hillary Clinton, and 220 Law Professors Have in Common?

Lately, I’ve been researching the twelve nation Trans-Pacific Partnership Treaty (“TPP”) because I am looking at investor-state dispute settlements (ISDS) in my work in progress proposing a model bilateral investment treaty between the U.S. and Cuba.

The TPP, which both Trump and Clinton oppose, has the support of U.S. business. Although President Obama has pushed the treaty as part of his legacy, just this morning, Vice-President Biden added his pessimistic views about its passage. More interestingly, over 220 law and economics academics, led by Harvard’s Laurence Tribe, have come out publicly to oppose TPP, stating:

ISDS grants foreign corporations and investors a special legal privilege: the right to initiate dispute settlement proceedings against a government for actions that allegedly violate loosely defined investor rights to seek damages from taxpayers for the corporation’s lost profits. Essentially, corporations and investors use ISDS to challenge government policies, actions, or decisions that they allege reduce the value of their investments... Through ISDS, the federal government gives foreign investors – and foreign investors alone – the ability to bypass th[e] robust, nuanced, and democratically responsive legal framework. Foreign investors are able to frame questions of domestic constitutional and administrative law as treaty claims, and take those claims to a panel of private international arbitrators, circumventing local, state or federal domestic administrative bodies and courts. Freed from fundamental rules of domestic procedural and substantive law that would have otherwise governed their lawsuits against the government, foreign corporations can succeed in lawsuits before ISDS tribunals even when domestic law would have clearly led to the rejection of those companies’ claims. Corporations are even able to re-litigate cases they have already lost in domestic courts. It is ISDS arbitrators, not domestic courts, who are ultimately able to determine the bounds of proper administrative, legislative, and judicial conduct… This system undermines the important roles of our domestic and democratic institutions, threatens domestic sovereignty, and weakens the rule of law.

Senator Warren, who also opposes TPP has argued, "“ISDS allows a small group of ultra-rich investors to extract billions of dollars from taxpayers while they undermine financial, environmental and public health rules across the world.”  I look forward to the upcoming debates to see whether either Trump, who has labeled the proposal the “rape of our country,”  or Clinton, who previously supported the deal, will cite the academics' letter as additional reason to oppose TPP. 

September 22, 2016 in Constitutional Law, Corporations, Current Affairs, International Business, International Law, Marcia Narine Weldon | Permalink | Comments (1)

Tuesday, September 20, 2016

Hermés: The Limited Liability Corporation That's Actually A Corporation

Here’s a new one on the “LLC as corporation” front.  A court in the Southern District of New York says the following:

[T]his Court has subject matter jurisdiction, since the parties are diverse and the amount in controversy exceeds $75,000. Hermes and Swain are “citizens” of different states; Hermes, a French limited liability corporation, has its headquarters in New York, while Swain is a New Jersey resident.

Hermés of Paris, Inc. v. Swain, 2016 WL 4990340, at *2 (S.D.N.Y., 2016)

In most such circumstances, when a court refers to a “limited liability corporation,” it meant to say “limited liability company.” See, e.g., Avarden Investments, LLC v. Deutsche Bank Nat'l Trust Co., No. 16-CV-014-LM, 2016 WL 4926155, at *2 (D.N.H. Sept. 15, 2016) (“Avarden is a limited liability company organized under the laws of New Hampshire. New Hampshire law permits a limited liability corporation to assign management responsibility of a limited liability company to a ‘manager.’ RSA 304-C:13.”). But not this time.

Bloomberg says Hermès of Paris, Inc. operates as a subsidiary of Hermes International SA.  The French version of an LLC is not an SA, it often viewed as an SARL.  

So, technically, a corporation is a “limited liability corporation” because corporations come with a grant of limited liability. The source of this language in this opinion is, in seems, the petition to compel arbitration, which states in paragraph 10: “Petitioner Hermés, an entity engaged in ‘commerce’ as defined in the FAA §1, is a limited liability corporation, with its United States headquarters in New York, New York.” 

Another interesting (to me) note is that that court and the pleadings don’t ever say where Hermés is incorporated. They just say where it is headquartered.  I see nothing that says its state of origin. I am not as up on my civil procedure (jurisdiction) as maybe I should be, but couldn’t that matter? That is, if Hermés of Paris, Inc., is a New Jersey corporation with headquarters in New York, might that not be a problem for diversity jurisdiction? (It looks like it’s not, though. I looked. But they do have a New Jersey warehouse. Still, the state of formation seems mildly important to note.)

Anyway, although I don’t like the use of the term at all, because it creates potential for confusion (is it an LLC or a corporation?), at least this time the words are correct, even if that’s not generally how we refer to the entity type. I’d still prefer the court to have just called it a corporation, though.

 

September 20, 2016 in Corporations, Joshua P. Fershee, LLCs | Permalink | Comments (2)

Friday, September 16, 2016

Is the Era of Conflict Minerals Disclosure Coming to an End?

Earlier this week the House Financial Services Committee voted to repeal the Dodd-Frank Conflict Minerals Rule, which I last wrote about here and in a law review article criticizing this kind of disclosure regime in general.

Under the proposed Financial Choice Act (with the catchy tagline of "Growth for All, Bailouts for None"), a number of Dodd-Frank provisions would go by the wayside, including conflict minerals because:

Title XV of the Dodd-Frank Act imposes a number of overly burdensome disclosure requirements related to conflict minerals, extractive industries, and mine safety that bear no rational relationship to the SEC’s statutory mission to protect investors, maintain fair, orderly, and efficient markets, and promote capital formation. The Financial CHOICE Act repeals those requirements. There is overwhelming evidence that Dodd-Frank’s conflict minerals disclosure requirement has done far more harm than good to its intended beneficiaries – the citizens of the Democratic Republic of Congo and neighboring Central African countries. SEC Chair Mary Jo White, an Obama appointee, has conceded the Commission is not the appropriate agency to carry out humanitarian policy. The provisions of Title XV of the Dodd-Frank Act are a prime example of the increasing use of the federal securities laws as a cudgel to force public companies to disclose extraneous political, social, and environmental matters in their periodic filings.

The House report cites a number of scholars and others who raise some of the same issues that I addressed in an amicus brief when the case was litigated at the trial and appellate level years ago.

This weekend I am attending the Business and Human Rights Scholars Conference co-sponsored by the University of Washington School of Law, the NYU Stern Center for Business and Human Rights, the Rutgers Business School, the Rutgers Center for Corporate Law and Governance, and the Business and Human Rights Journal. I present on Cuba, human rights, and investor-state dispute resolution, but a number of papers concern conflict minerals and disclosure in general.

As I have argued in the past, I’m not sure that repeal is the answer. I do believe that the law should be re-examined and possibly reformed to ensure that the diligence and disclosure actually leads to tangible and sustained benefits for the Congolese people. In short, I want to see some evidence of linkages between this corporate governance disclosure and reductions in rape, violence, child slavery, pillaging of villages, and forced labor. I want to see proof that the individual ethical consumers who claim in surveys to care about human rights have actually changed their buying habits because of this name and shame campaign.

Although I do not agree with many of the proposals in the House report and I am not against all disclosure, I do not believe that the SEC is the appropriate agency to address these issues. The State Department and others can and should take the lead on the very serious security and justice reform issues that I witnessed firsthand in Goma and Bukavu  when I went to the DRC to research this law five years ago. These issues and the violence perpetrated by rebel groups, police, and the military persist.  I look forward to hearing how and if proponents of the conflict minerals rule address this report during the conference.

September 16, 2016 in Compliance, Corporate Governance, Corporations, CSR, Current Affairs, Human Rights, Marcia Narine Weldon, Securities Regulation | Permalink | Comments (0)

Wednesday, September 14, 2016

Americold & Diversity Jurisdiction

Last spring, in the wake of Justice Scalia's passing, I blogged about Justice Scalia's final business law case: Americold Realty Trust v. ConAgra Ltd. The oral argument signaled that the Court's preference for a formalistic, bright line test that asked whether the entity involved was an unincorporated entity, in which case the citizenship of its members controlled the question of diversity, or whether it was formed as an corporation, in which a different test would apply.  The Supreme Court issued its unanimous (8-0) opinion in March, 2016 holding that the citizenship of an unincorporated entity depends on the citizenship of all of its members. Because Americold was organized as a real estate investment trust under Maryland law, its shareholders are its members and determine (in this case, preclude) diversity jurisdiction.   

S.I. Strong, the Manley O. Hudson Professor of Law at the University of Missouri, has a forthcoming article, Congress and Commercial Trusts: Dealing with Diversity Jurisdiction Post-Americold, forthcoming in Florida Law Review.  The article addresses the corporate constitutional jurisprudential questions of how can and should the Supreme Court treat business entities.  What is the appropriate role of substance and form in business law?  Her article offers a decisive reply:

Commercial trusts are one of the United States’ most important types of business organizations, holding trillions of dollars of assets and operating nationally and internationally as a “mirror image” of the corporation. However, commercial trusts remain underappreciated and undertheorized in comparison to corporations, often as a result of the mistaken perception that commercial trusts are analogous to traditional intergenerational trusts or that corporations reflect the primary or paradigmatic form of business association.

The treatment of commercial trusts reached its nadir in early 2016, when the U.S. Supreme Court held in Americold Realty Trust v. ConAgra Foods, Inc. that the citizenship of a commercial trust should be equated with that of its shareholder-beneficiaries for purposes of diversity jurisdiction. Unfortunately, the sheer number of shareholder-beneficiaries in most commercial trusts (often amounting to hundreds if not thousands of individuals) typically precludes the parties’ ability to establish complete diversity and thus eliminates the possibility of federal jurisdiction over most commercial trust disputes. As a result, virtually all commercial trust disputes will now be heard in state court, despite their complexity, their impact on matters of national public policy and their effect on the domestic and global economies.

Americold will also result in differential treatment of commercial trusts and corporations for purposes of federal jurisdiction, even though courts and commentators have long recognized the functional equivalence of the two types of business associations. Furthermore, as this research shows, there is no theoretical justification for this type of unequal treatment.

This Article therefore suggests, as a normative proposition, that Congress override Americold and provide commercial trusts with access to federal courts in a manner similar to that enjoyed by corporations. This recommendation is the result of a rigorous interdisciplinary analysis of both the jurisprudential and practical problems created by Americold as a matter of trust law, procedural law and the law of incorporated and unincorporated business associations. The Article identifies two possible Congressional responses to Americold, one involving reliance on minimal diversity, as in cases falling under 28 U.S.C. §§1332(d) and 1369, and the other involving a statutory definition of the citizenship of commercial trusts similar to that used for corporations under 28 U.S.C. §1332(c). In so doing, this Article hopes to place commercial trusts and corporations on an equal footing and avoid the numerous negative externalities generated by the Supreme Court’s decision in Americold.

A special thanks to Professor Strong who read the blog's coverage of Americold and shared her scholarship with me.

-Anne Tucker

September 14, 2016 in Anne Tucker, Constitutional Law, Corporate Governance, Corporate Personality, Corporations, Litigation, Shareholders, Unincorporated Entities | Permalink | Comments (2)

Tuesday, September 13, 2016

Free Speech and Free Markets Go Together

I think, by now, most people have heard about Colin Kaepernick's protest, which he manifested by his refusal to stand for the national anthem before the 49ers' August 26 preseason game against the Green Bay Packers.  Kaepernick explained his actions as follows: 

I am not going to stand up to show pride in a flag for a country that oppresses black people and people of color. To me, this is bigger than football and it would be selfish on my part to look the other way. There are bodies in the street and people getting paid leave and getting away with murder.

Many were offended by his decision; others have applauded it.  What is it that makes people (particularly white people) so upset about someone choosing not to stand for the national anthem? I thought the anthem and flag were supposed to stand for freedom, which includes the freedom to dissent and disagree. It fascinates me that one football player could get this much press for deciding not to do something he was under no obligation to do (as his employer made clear). But it certainly explains why he did it. If nothing else, Colin Kaepernick reminded of us both of our ability to speak freely and that there are potential costs when doing so. He got people to talk about an important issue, and he used his platform to focus on a necessary conversation.

Free speech can, though, have consequences. And in many ways, it should. The Bill of Rights just protects our right to speech and limits the government's ability to impose consequences for exercising that right. The Denver Broncos' Brandon Marshall lost a credit union sponsorship for his actions in support of Kaepernick's protest. Personally, if I did business with that sponsor, they'd lose my money because I support his Marshall's right to protest and because I think the the protest, conducted in a peaceful way, raised issues worthy of discussion.  (I will note that the sponsor cut ties in what appears to be a respectful and above-board way. I just disagree with the decision).  That's the free market working in a (mostly) free country.  I don't have any problem with the sponsor acting as they did, either.  They, too, were exercising their rights (assuming they did not breach a contract, and I have seen no evidence they did). I am not mad the credit union made the decision it did; I just disagree with the decision, and I would let them know that by walking away. 

Most striking to me about this uproar is the apparently binary way so many people view protests. One can love this country and hate injustice. We can protest as we try to reach our ideals. And we can disagree about the method of protest or the ideals themselves. But let's consider the point and be respectful of one another as we try to work through our differences. Brandon Marshall stated this position especially well. He explained, "I'm not against the military. I’m not against the police or America. I’m just against social injustice.”

Businesses, like people, have the right to associate with those they choose, and consumers (in turn) have a right to respond.  That is not just free speech, it is how a free market operates. 

Th United States, to me, is a great, yet greatly flawed, nation. The flag (and our national anthem) can represent the best of this nation and its people. The song and flag, like almost anything related to this nation that is more than 200 years old, also has ties to some of our very worst history, including slavery. That is also a reality. We have real and significant remaining institution problems related to race and gender, even if we're better than we used to be.  

No matter what, the national anthem and the flag are neither bigger than, nor more important than, the citizens they are intended to represent. Speaking freely, even when it is not popular, is honoring the best of what the flag should represent, the best of this nation’s history, and (I sincerely hope) a sign of a great future. Free speech is not a liberal or conservative issue, and exercising our right to speak should be celebrated, whether you agree with the speech or not.  Free speech begets free markets. 

“All we say to America is, ‘Be true to what you said on paper.’ If I lived in China or even Russia, or any totalitarian country, maybe I . . . could understand the denial of certain basic First Amendment privileges, because they hadn’t committed themselves to that over there. But somewhere I read of the freedom of assembly. Somewhere I read of the freedom of speech. Somewhere I read of the freedom of press. Somewhere I read that the greatness of America is the right to protest for right.”
— Martin Luther King, Jr., Civil Rights Leader

 

“We are so concerned to flatter the majority that we lose sight of how very often it is necessary, in order to preserve freedom for the minority, let alone for the individual, to face that majority down.”
— William F. Buckley Jr., founder of National Review magazine

 

“We cannot have a society half slave and half free; nor can we have thought half slave and half free. If we create an atmosphere in which [people] fear to think independently, inquire fearlessly, express themselves freely, we will in the end create the kind of society in which [people] no longer care to think independently or to inquire fearlessly.”
— Henry Steele Commager, U.S. historian

 

September 13, 2016 in Corporations, Current Affairs, Human Rights, Joshua P. Fershee, Law and Economics, Sports | Permalink | Comments (2)

Tuesday, September 6, 2016

Private Ordering in the Uncorporation: Modified and Eliminated Fiduciary Duties Are Often the Same Thing

What does it mean to opt out of fiduciary duties?  In follow-up to my co-blogger Joan Heminway's post, Limited Partnership Law: Should Tennessee Follow Delaware's Lead On Fiduciary Duty Private Ordering?, I will go a step further and say all states should follow Delaware's lead on private ordering for non-publicly traded unincorporated business associations. 

Here's why:  At formation, I think all duties between promoters of an unincorporated business association (i.e., not a corporation) are always, to some degree, defined at formation. This is different than the majority of other agency relationships where the expectations of the relationship are more ingrained and less negotiated (think employee-employer relationship).  

As such, I'd make fiduciary duties a fundamental right by statute that can be dropped (expressly) by those forming the entity.  I'd put an additional limit on the ability to drop fiduciary duties: the duties can only be dropped after formation if expressly stated in formation documents (or agreed unanimously later). That is, if you didn't opt out at formation, tell all those who could potentially join the entity how you can change fiduciary duties later. This helps limit some (though not all) freeze-out options, and I think it would encourage investors to check the entity documents closely (as they should).

At formation, the concerns we might have of, for example, an employee without fiduciary duties, are not the same as they are for co-venturers. Those starting an entity have long negotiated what is a breach of the duty of loyalty, for example.  In contrast, I think fiduciary duties in most employer-employee (and similar) relationships reflect the majoritarian default and they facilitate the relationship existing at all. For LLCs and partnership entities, I think that's less clear. Entity formation is relatively rare compared to how often we enter other agency relationships, and they almost always involve significant negotiation (if not planning).  And if they don't, the rules we expect traditionally should be the default. But where the parties talk about it, and they usually do, allowing a more robust sense of freedom of contract has value.  

Even in Delaware, where one can negotiate out of fiduciary duties, there remains the duty of good faith and fair dealing. I think of that as meaning that the parties still have a right to the essence of the contract.  That is, the contract has to mean something.  It has to have had a purpose and potential value at formation, and no party can eliminate that.  But, the parties only have a right to what was bargained for.  As such, what we might traditionally consider a breach of the duty of loyalty could also breach the duty of good faith and fair dealing, but a traditional breach of the duty of loyalty might not be sufficient to find liability where there is expressly no duty of loyalty. Instead, the act must so contradict the purpose of the contract that it rises to the level of a breach the duty of good faith and fair dealing. 

Part of the reason I support this option is that I think case law has already validated it, but in such an inartful manner that it confuses existing doctrine. See, e.g.McConnell v. Hunt Sports Enterprises132 Ohio App. 3d 657, 725 N.E.2d 1193 (Ct. App. 1999) (“An LLC, like a partnership, involves a fiduciary relationship. Normally, the presence of such a relationship would preclude direct competition between members of the company. However, here we have an operating agreement that by its very terms allows members to compete with the business of the company.”).

In closing, I will note that I am all for express provisions that require investors to pay attention at the outset. I don't believe in helping cheaters hide the ball. I just think law that encourages investors and others joining new ventures to pay attention is useful and will provide long-term value to entities.  I don't think that eliminated fiduciary duties at formation raise any more of a risk than we already have with limited or modified fiduciary duties at formation. With the more limited protections described above, freedom of contract should reign. 

September 6, 2016 in Corporations, Delaware, Joan Heminway, Joshua P. Fershee, Legislation, LLCs, Negotiation, Partnership, Unincorporated Entities | Permalink | Comments (1)