Tuesday, April 15, 2014
They really don't.
To be clear, this is not a post bashing corporations (or government). It's not really extolling the virtues of corporations, either. Instead, it's just to make the point that, notwithstanding Citizens United or Hobby Lobby and other cases of their ilk, the idea that corporations are people is still a legal fiction. A useful and important one, but a fiction nonetheless.
On April 11, Corey Booker posted the following on Facebook:
In awful years past, corporations polluted the Passaic river to the point that it ended the days where people could eat from it, swim in it, and use it as a thriving recreation source. Today we announced a massive initiative to clean the Passaic river and bring it back to life again. The tremendous clean up effort will create hundreds of jobs and slowly over time restore one of New Jersey's great rivers to its past strength and glory.
The river needs the clean-up, and I applaud the effort. Still, the reality is corporations did not pollute the Passaic River, at least not literally. People working for the corporation did. It is agency law that allows a corporation to act in the first place, because the fictional corporate person needs a natural person to act. (For a simple explanation, see here.) The corporation is liable for the harm caused by its agents. (And, in certain cases, the individuals would also be liable directly if their actions were, for example, illegal.)
Government doesn't really do anything, either. The clean-up proposal that Booker was referencing is a $1.7 billion Superfund river remediation project that was proposed by the EPA. Of course, government works through agents, too, and there are real people behind the proposal. Real people, through concerted action between corporations and government will actually do the clean up, too.
This is a point I have made before, but I think it's an important one. We need to remember that people are at the root of all corporate and government actions. This is important in two directions. First, for those criticizing a corporate or government action, it is critical for them to remember that there are people carrying out the action. A corporation or a government may act in an inappropriate manner, but it is also likely that the person carrying out the action is doing so with the intent to do well in the capacity in which they were fired.
Second, for people working for corporations or governments it is equally critical that they recognize that the their employer doesn't carry out actions without their help. That is, people who work for corporations or governments must recognize that they are carrying out the will of the entity they represent (and they should hold themselves responsible for doing do). Perhaps it is their boss who gave them the order (also a natural person), or even the board of directors (a group of natural people), but the charge is in fact, if not legally, being given by natural people.
Why does this matter? When we vilify or exalt the action of entities (like corporations or governments) we disconnect ourselves from the realities of the world, or at least our responsibilities within it. We become more susceptible to Groupthink in either direction. We are able to shirk our responsibilities -- as employees, as agents, as lawyers, as voters, as shareholders, as people -- to make decisions the are conscious of the world around us. In our daily lives and in our representative capacities, we all must make difficult decisions from time to time.
Sometimes, tough decisions require a cost-benefit analysis that means someone else will be worse off because of our decision. It's hard, but it's what people do. Often, it's what we must do. In doing so, though, it is essential that we hold ourselves and other people accountable as people for what we've done. Regardless of the rhetoric we often hear, the amalgamations of people who make up both governments and corporations have done some amazing and impressive things. Both have also done some horrendous and outrageous things. The people in charge, and the people who follow, are accountable in both circumstances.
In this instance, I am making a conceptual argument, not a legal one. There are legal regimes, sometimes effective, sometimes not, for holding both entities and their agents accountable for their actions (and rewarding them, where appropriate). How we think about corporations and governments and each other, though, has a broader impact. Without us -- all of us -- there are no corporations and there is no government. If we remember that, our responses to challenges are more likely to be more targeted, more effective, and more reasonable. Just because we don't always agree, doesn't mean we aren't all in this together. Whether we like it or not, we are, and it's time we acted like it.
Monday, April 14, 2014
In an opinion released earlier today, the D.C. Circuit Court struck down the SEC's Dodd-Frank Conflict Mineral Rule under the compelled speech doctrine for failing the least restrictive alternative prong.
We therefore hold that 15 U.S.C. § 78m(p)(1)(A)(ii) & (E), and the Commission’s final rule, 56 Fed. Reg. at 56,362-65, violate the First Amendment to the extent the statute and rule require regulated entities to report to the Commission and to state on their website that any of their products have “not been found to be ‘DRC conflict free.’”
Not striking down the need for information about conflict minerals, but rather the required approach, the Court suggested that:
[A] centralized list compiled by the Commission in one place may even be more convenient or trustworthy to investors and consumers. The Commission has failed to explain why (much less provide evidence that) the Association’s intuitive alternatives to regulating speech would be any less effective.
In August, 2012, the SEC released final Dodd-Frank rules for conflict minerals "requir[ing] companies to publicly disclose their use of conflict minerals that originated in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) or an adjoining country."
Thursday, April 10, 2014
[I]t is counterproductive for investors to turn the corporate governance process into a constant Model U.N. where managers are repeatedly distracted by referenda on a variety of topics proposed by investors with trifling stakes. Giving managers some breathing space to do their primary job of developing and implementing profitable business plans would seem to be of great value to most ordinary investors. -Hon. Leo E. Strine Jr., Can We Do Better by Ordinary Investors? A Pragmatic Reaction to the Dueling Ideological Mythologists of Corporate Law, 114 COLUMBIA L. REV. 449, 475 (2014).
When was the last time you remember the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, the National Association of Corporate Directors, the National Black Chamber of Commerce, American Petroleum Institute, the Latino Coalition, Financial Services Roundtable, Center On Executive Compensation, and the Financial Services Forum joining forces on an issue? Well yesterday they signed on to a petition for rulemaking that was submitted to the SEC regarding the resubmission of shareholder proposals that “fail to elicit meaningful shareholder support.”
Shareholders who own at least $2,000 worth of a company’s stock for at least one year may require a company to include one shareholder proposal in the company’s proxy statement to all shareholders under Rule 14a-8(b) of the ’34 Act. Under Rule 14a-8(i)(12), companies may exclude shareholder proposals from proxy materials under thirteen circumstances, including but not limited to proposals that deal with substantially the same subject matter as another proposal that has been previously included in the company’s proxy materials within the preceding 5 calendar years and did not receive a specified percentage of the vote on its last submission. Specifically a company can exclude a proposal (or one with substantially the same subject matter) if it failed to receive 3% support the last time it was voted on if voted on once in the last five years, 6% if it was voted on twice in the last five years, and 10% if it was voted on three or more times in the past five years for resubmission. Note that the SEC itself proposed and then withdrew the idea of raising the threshold to 6%, 15% and 30% in 1997. The Resubmission Rule is supposed to protect the interests of the majority of shareholders so that a small minority cannot burden the rest of the shareholders with proposals that the majority have repeatedly expressed that they have no interest in and to ensure that management can focus on issues that are important to the company.
Why is this important? The petition includes the following enlightening statistics:
1) The two largest proxy advisory firms, Institutional Shareholder Services (ISS) and Glass Lewis command 97% of the market for proxy advisory firms meaning that they can, in the petitioners view, “dictate” what should be included in proxy solicitations. Proposals favored by ISS may receive up to 24.7% greater support than those do not have their support and proposals favored by Glass Lewis may receive up to 12.9% greater support, all independent of other factors.
2) According to the Manhattan Institute, since 2011, 437 shareholder proposals relating to questions of social policy have been submitted just to the Fortune 250. These proposals have been opposed by an average of 83.7% of votes cast.
3) Between 2005-2013, 420 shareholder proposals focusing on environmental issues were proposed to US companies but only one passed (I would note that many environmental issues never make it to the proxy because shareholders are now engaging with management earlier).
4) Between 2005-2013, 237 labor-related proposals were submitted to US companies. Only three proposals received majority support and the other 234 labor-related proposals received less than 20% support.
5) A Navigant study estimates that companies incur direct costs of $87,000 per proposal or $90 million annually in the aggregate.
6) The website shareholderactivist.com calls shareholder activism a "participatory sport" where investor activists submit similar proposals to multiple companies so that they can "advance a larger agenda.”
The petitioners argue that the current Resubmission Rule fails to protect shareholders and forces the majority of shareholders to “wade through and evaluate” numerous proposals that have already been “viewed unfavorably” by 90% or more of shareholders year after year and have no realistic likelihood of winning the support of a substantial number of shareholders. The petitioners recommend that the SEC reconsider the Resubmission Rule because the existing rule was adopted without cost-benefit analysis. To better serve shareholders, the petitioners contend that SEC should significantly increase the voting percentage of favorable votes a proposal must receive before the company is obligated to include a repeat proposal in subsequent years in its proxy. To read the Petition for Rulemaking click here. The comment period for the SEC will be open soon.
As a side note, my business associations class studied Rule 14a-8 and drafted their own shareholder proposals last week. I saw one of my students today and excitedly told her I was working on this blog post and that we were going to discuss this proposal on Monday. Her response- oh no- will we have to know this for the final? Must be the end of the semester.
April 10, 2014 in Business Associations, Corporate Governance, Corporations, Current Affairs, Financial Markets, Law School, Marcia L. Narine, Securities Regulation, Teaching | Permalink | Comments (0)
Thursday, April 3, 2014
As regular readers of this blog may know, I sit on the Department of Labor's Whistleblower Protection Advisory Committee. The Occupational Health and Safety Administration, a division of the Department of Labor, may not be the first agency that many people think of when it comes to protecting whistleblowers, but in fact the agency enforces almost two dozen laws, including Sarbanes-Oxley and the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau's law on whistleblowers. The Consumer Financial Protection Act was promulgated on July 21, 2010 to protect employees against retaliation by entities that offer or provide consumer financial products.
Today OSHA released its interim regulations for protecting CFPB whistleblowers. The regulation defines a “covered person” as “any person that engages in offering or providing a consumer financial product or service.” A “covered employee” is “any individual performing tasks related to the offering or provision of a consumer financial product or service.” A “consumer financial product or service” includes, but is not limited to, a product or service offered to consumers for personal, family, or household purposes, such as residential mortgage lending and servicing, private student lending and servicing, payday lending, prepaid debit cards, consumer credit reporting, credit cards and related activities. The Consumer Financial Protection Act protects “covered employees” of “covered persons” from retaliation who report violations of the law to their employer, the CFPB, or any other federal, state, or local government authority or law enforcement agency. Employees are also protected from retaliation for testifying about violations, filing reports or refusing to violate the law.
Retaliation is broadly defined as firing or laying off, reducing pay or hours, reassigning, demoting, denying overtime or promotion, disciplining, denying benefits, failing to hire or rehire, blacklisting, intimidating, and making threats. An employee or representative who believes that s/he has suffered retaliation must bring a claim within 180 days after the alleged retaliatory action. If OSHA finds that the complaint has merit, the agency will issue an order requiring the employer to put the employee back to work, pay lost wages, restore benefits, and provide other relief. Either party can request a full hearing before an ALJ of the Department of Labor. A final decision from an ALJ may be appealed to the Department’s Administrative Review Board and an employee may also file a complaint in federal court if the Department of Labor does not issue a final decision within certain time limits.
Although the statute is part of Dodd-Frank, the CFPB whistleblowers don’t get the same monetary benefits as Dodd-Frank whistleblowers who go to the SEC. The SEC Dodd-Frank whistleblower rule allows the recovery of between 10-30% of any monetary award of more then $1million of any SEC enforcement action to those individuals who provide original information to the agency. The SEC announced that in 2013 it awarded $14,831,965.64 during its fiscal year to 4 whistleblowers based on 3,238 tips. The vast majority—more than $14 million went to a single individual. The top three allegations involved corporate disclosures and financials (17.2%), offering fraud (17.1%) and manipulation (16.2%).
Should there be such a disparity between those whistleblowers who protect consumers and those who protect investors? Maybe not, but studies consistently show that whistleblowers don’t report to government agencies for the money so perhaps the absence of a large financial reward won’t be a deterrence. Time will tell as to whether any of these whistleblower laws will prevent the next financial crisis. But at least those who work in the financial sector will have some protection.
The Tennessean story is here.
While Alberto Gonzales is certainly a controversial figure in some circles, I believe that people should be given multiple chances in life. He brings a wealth of high level experience to his new position, including:
- Partner at Vinson & Elkins,
- Justice on the Texas Supreme Court,
- Texas Secretary of State,
- General Counsel to the Governor of Texas,
- Counsel to the President of the United States,
- 80th Attorney General of the United States, and
- Visiting Professor at Texas Tech University
My office is across campus at Belmont University's business school, but I will teach Business Associations in the law school this fall (in addition to my courses in the business school), and I look forward to interacting with our new law school dean.
Sunday, March 30, 2014
Our friends at The Conglomerate recently conducted an excellent online symposium on the Hobby Lobby case.
All of the posts have been collected here.
It was refreshing to read such a thoughtful and balanced set of posts.
In my article, “The Silent Role of Corporate Theory in the Supreme Court’s Campaign Finance Cases,” 15 U. Pa. J. Const. L. 831, I criticized the Supreme Court justices for failing to acknowledge the role of competing conceptualizations of the corporation in their corporate political speech cases. I noted, however, that former Chief Justice Rehnquist was arguably the lone modern justice to deserve at least some praise in this area.
Justice Rehnquist's stand-alone dissent in Bellotti provides arguably the sole example in these opinions of a Justice affirmatively adopting a theory of the corporation for purposes of determining the constitutional rights of corporations--though not via the express adoption of one of the traditionally recognized theories. Specifically, Justice Rehnquist relied on Justice Marshall's Dartmouth College opinion to conclude that: “Since it cannot be disputed that the mere creation of a corporation does not invest it with all the liberties enjoyed by natural persons . . . our inquiry must seek to determine which constitutional protections are ‘incidental to its very existence.”’ Thus, while it may be true that “a corporation's right of commercial speech . . . might be considered necessarily incidental to the business of a commercial corporation[, i]t cannot be so readily concluded that the right of political expression is equally necessary to carry out the functions of a corporation organized for commercial purposes.” I would argue that this is a formulation most aligned with concession theory because not only does Justice Rehnquist rely on Dartmouth College, but he also goes on to say: “I would think that any particular form of organization upon which the State confers special privileges or immunities different from those of natural persons would be subject to like regulation, whether the organization is a labor union, a partnership, a trade association, or a corporation.” Stefan J. Padfield, The Silent Role of Corporate Theory in the Supreme Court's Campaign Finance Cases, 15 U. Pa. J. Const. L. 831, 853 (2013) (quoting First Nat'l Bank of Bos. v. Bellotti, 435 U.S. 765 (1978)).
While this is only one data point, I think it suggests the former Chief Justice would have been hesitant to grant corporations any form of free exercise rights, since it is difficult to see how free exercise rights are more incidental to a corporation’s existence than political speech rights. Cf. Kent Greenawalt, Religion and the Rehnquist Court, 99 Nw. U. L. Rev. 145, 146 (2004) (“With limited qualifications, the Rehnquist Court has abandoned the possibility of constitutionally-required free exercise exemptions.”).
For more on concession theory, I shamelessly suggest my more recent article, “Rehabilitating Concession Theory,” 66 Okla. L. Rev. 327 (2014) (“the reports of concession theory's demise have been greatly exaggerated”). And if you find that of interest, you can check out my latest SSRN posting, “Corporate Social Responsibility & Concession Theory.”
Thursday, March 27, 2014
I wonder how many people are boycotting Hobby Lobby because of the company’s stance on the Affordable Health Care Act and contraception. Perhaps more people than ever are shopping there in support. Co-blogger Anne Tucker recounted the Supreme Court’s oral argument here in the latest of her detailed posts on the case. The newspapers and blogosphere have followed the issue for months, often engaging in heated debate. But what does the person walking into a Hobby Lobby know and how much do they care?
I spoke to reporter Noam Cohen from the New York Times earlier today about an app called Buycott, which allows consumers to research certain products by scanning a barcode. If they oppose the Koch Brothers or companies that lobbied against labels for genetically modified food or if they support companies with certain environmental or human rights practices, the app will provide the information to them in seconds based on their predetermined settings and the kinds of “campaigns” they have joined. Neither Hobby Lobby nor Conestoga Woods is listed in the app yet.
Cohen wanted to know whether apps like Buycott and GoodGuide (which rates products and companies on a scale of 1-10 for their health, environmental and social impact) are part of a trend in which consumers “vote” on political issues with their purchasing power. In essence, he asked, has the marketplace, aided by social media, become a proxy for politics? I explained that while I love the fact that the apps can raise consumer awareness, there are a number of limitations. The person who downloads these apps is the person who already feels strongly enough about an issue to change their buying habits. These are the people who won’t eat chocolate or drink coffee unless it’s certified fair trade, who won’t shop in Wal-Mart because of the anti-union stance, and who sign the numerous change.org petitions that seek action on a variety of social and political topics.
I had a number of comments for Cohen that delved deeper than the efficacy of the apps. The educated consumer can make informed choices and feel good about them but how does this affect corporate behavior? Although the research is inconsistent in some areas, most research shows that companies care about their reputations but the extent to which a boycott is effective depends on the amount of national media attention it gets; how good the company’s reputation was before the boycott (many firms with excellent reputations feel that they can be buffered by previous pro-social behavior and messaging); whether the issue is one-sided (child labor) or polarizing (gay marriage, Obamacare, climate change); how passionate the boycotters are; how easy it is to participate (is the product or service unique); and how the message is communicated.
Many activists have done an excellent job of messaging. The SEC Dodd-Frank conflict minerals regulation made it through Congress through the efforts of NGOs that had been trying for years to end a complex, geopolitical crisis that has killed over 5 million people. They got consumers, social media and Hollywood actors talking about “blood on the mobile” or companies being complicit in rape and child slavery in Congo because when they changed the messaging they elicited the appropriate level of moral outrage. The conflict minerals “name and shame” law depends on consumers learning about which products are sourced from the Congo and surrounding countries and making purchasing decisions based on that information. Congress believes that this will solve an intractable human rights crisis. The European Union, which has a much stronger corporate social responsibility mandate for its member states has taken a different view. Although it will also rely on consumers to make informed choices, its draft recommendations on dealing with conflict minerals makes reporting voluntary, which has exposed the EU to criticism. As I have written here, here, here here and here, relying on consumers to address a human rights crisis will only work if it leads to significant boycotts by corporations, investors or governments or if it leads to legislation, and that legislation cannot harm the people it is intended to help.
So what do I think of apps like GoodGuide, BuyCott and 2ndVote (for more conservative causes)? I own some of them. But I also send letters to companies, vote regularly, call people in Congress and write on issues that inspire me. How many of the apps’ users go farther than the click or the scan? Some researchers have used the word “slacktivists” to describe those who participate in political discussions through social media, online petitions and apps. The act of pressing the button makes the user feel good but has no larger societal impact.
What about the vast majority of consumers? The single mother shopping for her children in a big-box retailer or in the fast food restaurant that has been targeted for its labor practices may not have the time, luxury or inclination to buy more “ethically sourced” products. Moreover, studies show that consumers often overreport on their ethical purchasing and that price, convenience and costs typically win out. The apps’ developers may have more modest intentions than what I ascribe to them. If they can raise consumer awareness- admittedly for the self-selected people who buy the app in the first place- then that’s a good thing. If the petitions or media attention lead to well-crafted legislation, that’s even better.
Wednesday, March 26, 2014
A little more than six weeks ago The Lego Movie hit theaters. Without getting into too much detail for those of you who have not yet seen the movie or who will never get around to seeing the movie, in essence it’s about an ordinary guy who’s mistakenly identified as an extraordinary “MasterBuilder”. He is recruited to fight against a Lego villain (President Business-we can call him P.B.) who is intent on gluing everything together. The anti-PB crusaders like having the freedom to dismantle, break, and re-make their Lego creations and shudder at the thought of having everything permanently fixed in place. PB, on the other hand, is intent on perma-gluing the Lego bricks together because he likes the certainty and control of knowing where everything is, and he is wary of innovation or change. Hence, his admonition- “EVERYTHING MUST STAY IN PLACE.”
Now as I watched this battle unfold between President Business’ pro-gluing supporters on one hand, and the pro-change supporters on the other, I could not help but see some similarities between the Lego people’s contested views on the purpose of Legos and our society’s contested views on the purpose of corporations. In The Lego Movie it is a contest between staying in place and the freedom to innovate and create, while in the corporate purpose debate it is a contest between profit maximization/shareholder primacy and ANYTHING ELSE THAT DARES TO SAY ANYTHING OTHER THAN SHAREHOLDER PRIMACY (e.g., creating shared value; stakeholder theory; team production).
While shareholder primacy has both normative and pragmatic appeal, one cannot help but wonder whether this traditional conceptualization of corporations is open to being re-made, or must it be immovable and “stay in place”. In other words, if we accept that our world today is markedly different from the one that existed when shareholder primacy came into vogue, are we selling ourselves short by clinging to a mantra that may no longer be ideal or that may need to be revamped?
Consider a new report by McKinsey [Dr. Maximilian Martin of Impact Economy], titled “Impact Economy, Driving Innovation through Corporate Impact Venturing – A Primer on Business Transformation”. In essence, the report finds that pursuing a profit-as-usual model with “CSR” as a tangential activity is “fast coming to an end.” According to the report, this is because “[a] new paradigm is emerging in its place that is responding to structural changes in the operating environments of business.” The McKinsey [Impact Economy] report points to four “megatrends” that are nudging corporations towards a more transformative and holistic view of their role and purpose – what McKinsey [Impact Economy] terms “sustainable value creation.” These four trends are: (i) significant opportunities at the Base of the Pyramid (BoP); (ii) a $540 billion market for “Lifestyles of Health and Sustainability Consumption”; (iii) the growth in markets “resulting from green growth and the circular economy”; and (iv) the “modernization of the welfare state.” The conclusion reached by the report is that “companies are well advised to grasp the changing tectonics of value creation and tackle markets accordingly if they want to remain competitive in the long run.”
This new McKinsey [Impact Economy] report is of course not alone in making the case for a more expansive view of corporate purpose (for example, the Aspen Business & Society Program’s report on long-term value creation, or Michael Porter’s work on creating shared value). But what does it take to move the needle? In the Lego Movie, it took President Business and the head of the pro-change supporters realizing that their views were really not that far apart. Maybe that too is the winning answer for the corporate purpose debate – those corporations who are successful in responding to the aforementioned mega trends and other societal needs stand to be the ones who provide the most value creation for society and their shareholders.
UPDATE 4/15/14: The original version of this post improperly identified McKinsey as the source of the “Impact Economy, Driving Innovation through Corporate Impact Venturing – A Primer on Business Transformation” report. The post has been corrected to reflect the fact that the report was written by Dr. Maximilian Martin of Impact Economy.
Thursday, March 20, 2014
It’s proxy season and the Conference Board has released a series of reports on investor engagement and corporate governance. In “The Conference Board Governance Center White Paper: What is the Optimal Balance in the Relative Roles of Management, Directors, and Investors in the Governance of Public Corporations?” the authors provide a 76-page overview of the evolution of US corporate governance, describing key trends and issues.
The report begins by discussing the history of the allocation of roles and responsibilities for governance of public companies. If I thought my law students would read it, I would assign this section to them. The second part of the paper addresses the legal, social and market trends that have influenced the historical allocation of rights. Specifically, it reviews:
a) the increasing influence of institutional investors resulting from the concentration of ownership in institutional investment, changes in voting rules and practices and more assertive shareholder activism;
b) shifting conceptions about the purpose of the corporation and the duty to maximize corporate value, with a strong emphasis on shareholder wealth maximization;
c) decreased public trust of business leaders following the corporate scandals of 2001-2002 and 2007-2008;
d) federal regulation intended to enhance the influence of shareholders and increase board and management accountability;
e) continuing related to executive compensation and incentives; and
f) the growth of proxy advisory firms in the shareholder voting process.
Some interesting statistics:
a) in 2013, 25% of all shareholder proposals were sponsored by two individuals and their family members and family trusts;
b) from 2006-2013, 33% of shareholder proposals submitted to Fortune 250 companies were sponsored by investors affiliated with labor; 26% by corporate gadflies; 25% by religious, social impact and public policy organizations; and 15% by other individual investors;
c) 241 activist campaigns were launched in 2012 up from 187 in 2009;
d) 69% of proxy contests against the management of Russell 3000 companies during the 2013 proxy season were launched by activist hedge funds; and
e) one third of the activist hedge fund contests sought full control of the board.
The third part of the report briefly summarizes but does not provide any conclusions about the work of Professors Bainbridge, Stout, Anabtawi, Bebchuk, Laverty, and others. It considers the following questions (but does not answer them):
a) Do federal mandates undermine the benefits of a historically state-driven corporate law?
b) Are further changes to board processes and composition desirable?
c) Should shareholders assume a more active role in corporate governance?
d) Do proxy advisory firms replace, rather than augment, the shareholder voice, and should the proxy advisory industry be subject to greater regulation and oversight?
e) Can changes to voting mechanisms improve the effectiveness of corporate governance?
f) Is short-termism a cause of concern, and is so, what are its causes and remedies?
g) What new challenges are presented by vote decoupling, high-speed trading, and hyper portfolio diversification?
In next week’s post I will discuss the “Guidelines for Engagement” and the “Recommendations of the Task Force on Corporate/Investor Engagement.” In the meantime, I highly recommend downloading these complimentary reports.
Wednesday, March 19, 2014
A hearing in the Delaware Court of Chancery highlights the question raised in my earlier post of institutional shareholder activism and provides a timely example of one brand of shareholder activism: issue activism.
Yesterday, Vice Chancellor J. Travis Laster denied Hershey's motion to dismiss a books-and-records suit brought by shareholder Louisiana Municipal Police Employees' Retirement System. The suit seeks inspection of corporate books to investigate claims that the chocolate company knowingly used suppliers violating international child labor laws. A full description of the hearing is available here.
UPDATE, Kent Greenfield who has been involved in the case, provided me with a copy of the Hershey hearing & ruling ( Download Hershey Ruling) as well as some context for the case. Yesterday's hearing did two things. First, it clarified the standard of review for motions to dismiss section 220 books and records demands. Citing to Seinfeld v. Verizon Commc'ns, Inc., 909 A.2d 117, 118 (Del. Supr. 2006), the proper standard is whether a shareholder has provided "some evidence to suggest a 'credible basis' from which a court can infer that mismanagement, waste or wrongdoing may have occurred." Second, the books and record request was brought on the novel theory that corporate violations of law (domestic and international) are ultra vires and within the scope of shareholder enforcement. The ultra vires corporate enforcement theory is discussed in more detail in this 2005 article by Professors Greenfield and Sulkowski.
Monday, March 17, 2014
Professor Jennifer Pacella (CUNY-Baruch) recently posted an article entitled Bounties for Bad Behavior: Rewarding Culpable Whistleblowers under the Dodd-Frank Act and Internal Revenue Code. The abstract is posted below:
In 2012, Bradley Birkenfeld received a $104 million reward or “bounty” from the Internal Revenue Service (“IRS”) for blowing the whistle on his employer, UBS, which facilitated a major offshore tax fraud scheme by assisting thousands of U.S. taxpayers to hide their assets in Switzerland. Birkenfeld does not fit the mold of the public’s common perception of a whistleblower. He was himself complicit in this crime and even served time in prison for his involvement. Despite his conviction, Birkenfeld was still eligible for a sizable whistleblower bounty under the IRS Whistleblower Program, which allows rewards for whistleblowers who are convicted conspirators, excluding only those convicted of “planning and initiating” the underlying action. In contrast, the whistleblower program of the Securities and Exchange Commission (“SEC”) under the Dodd-Frank Wall Street Reform and Consumer Protection Act (“Dodd-Frank”), which was modeled after the IRS program, precludes rewards for any whistleblower convicted of a criminal violation that is “related to” a securities enforcement proceeding. Therefore, because of his conviction, Birkenfeld would not have been granted a bounty under Dodd-Frank had he blown the whistle on a violation of the federal securities laws, rather than tax evasion. This Article will explore an area that has been void of much scholarly attention — the rationale behind providing bounties to whistleblowers who have unclean hands and the differences between federal whisteblower programs in this regard. After analyzing the history and structure of the IRS and SEC programs and the public policy concerns associated with rewarding culpable whistleblowers, this Article will conclude with various observations justifying and supporting the SEC model. This Article will critique the IRS’s practice of including the criminally convicted among those who are eligible for bounty awards by suggesting that the existence of alternative whistleblower incentive structures, such as leniency and immunity, are more appropriate for a potential whistleblower facing a criminal conviction. In addition, the IRS model diverges from the legal structure upon which it is based, the False Claims Act, which does not allow convicted whistleblowers to receive a bounty. In response to potential counterarguments that tax fraud reporting may not be analogous to securities fraud reporting, this Article will also explore the SEC’s recent trend of acting increasingly as a “punisher” akin to a criminal, rather than a civil, enforcement entity like the IRS. In conclusion, this Article will suggest that the SEC’s approach represents a reasonable middle ground that reconciles the conflict between allowing wrongdoers to benefit from their own misconduct and incentivizing culpable insiders to come forward, as such persons often possess the most crucial information in bringing violations of the law to light.
Sunday, March 16, 2014
The "Conference on Multi-Jurisdictional Deal Litigation" will be held April 25, 2014. Here is a brief introduction:
M&A litigation is increasingly filed in both the target’s state of incorporation and its headquarters state. It is the most important current development in corporate litigation. The leading plaintiffs’ and defendants’ deal litigators from Delaware and from Texas will discuss every aspect of this issue at our day-long conference. Chief Justice Strine of the Delaware Supreme Court and Justice Brown of the Texas Supreme Court will be panelists.
Friday, March 14, 2014
Last week The Atlantic ran an article entitled Dirty Money: From Rockefeller to Koch that detailed the controversy surrounding a $1 million dollar gift from the Charles Koch Foundation to Catholic University. The article quoted a letter of protest that stated:
We are concerned that by accepting such a donation you send a confusing message to Catholic students and other faithful Catholics that the Koch brothers’ anti-government, Tea Party ideology has the blessing of a university sanctioned by Catholic bishops.
Despite the controversy, it appears Catholic University will keep the gift. A few weeks ago, the Catholic University president and the business school dean collaborated in an article entitled Why We're Keeping a $1 Million Koch Gift in The Wall Street Journal. The authors conclude:
We're grateful for the $1 million, and we're keeping it, because it would be an unhealthy precedent for a university to refuse support for valuable research because the money, somewhere back up the line, once belonged to a donor whose views on other subjects were unpopular within the academic community.
I have not seen anything further from the school on this issue since the cited WSJ article.
Many universities are facing financial challenges and are desperately looking for funds. Last April, Catholic University announced a 20% budget cut due to falling revenue. Schools could argue that they will put donated funds to good use, regardless of the source. But are their limits on whose money universities should accept? And if there are limits, how do we determine those limits?
To start, I think we should recognize that there are no perfect people, and schools looking for flawless donors should give up hope of finding any. Further, I agree with the Catholic University president and business school dean that excluding donors merely because of their unpopular views sends the wrong message to our students and our community. We should respect and expose our students to a variety of views, even views with which we disagree.
Personally, I think schools should focus on two questions:
- Will the gift lead to improper influence?
- Does acceptance of the gift endorse unethical behavior?
Improper Influence. We all have biases, but academics have the potential to be among the least biased voices in their communities. Universities should be most focused on whether the gift will actually lead to improper influence, but university might also be wise to consider if the gift will lead to even an appearance of improper influence. Individual scholars have been accused of “shilling for Wall Street”. Similarly, claims of improper influence levied against entire universities could be harmful as well.
Tying this to business law, In re Oracle Corp. Derivative Litigation, 824 A.2d 917 (Del.Ch.2003) Vice Chancellor Strine (now Chief Justice of the Delaware Supreme Court) recognized the judgment clouding potential of large donations. Regarding two Stanford University professors who sat on an Oracle special litigation committee (“SLC”) VC Strine wrote:
And, for both Grundfest and Garcia-Molina, service on the SLC demanded that they consider whether an extremely generous and influential Stanford alumnus should be sued by Oracle for insider trading. Although they were not responsible for fundraising, as sophisticated professors they undoubtedly are aware of how important large contributors are to Stanford, and they share in the benefits that come from serving at a university with a rich endowment. A reasonable professor giving any thought to the matter would obviously consider the effect his decision might have on the University's relationship with Lucas.
Of course, anyone can levy a claim of improper influence, and schools (and individual professors) should be most concerned about reasonable and supported claims. Schools can attempt to reduce reliance on any single donor by expanding their donor base. Each school should also make donors and the public aware that the school's professors do not plan to push donors' agendas, but plan to stay intellectually honest, write about their areas with as little bias as possible, and expose their students to a range of views.
Improper Endorsement. Universities should be places where students are inspired and encouraged to act ethically. Taking funds from notorious, unethical figures could be taken, by students and the public, as endorsement of unethical behavior. Improper endorsement of unethical behavior is less likely, in my opinion, if the donor publicly admits to his/her mistakes and is taking steps to make amends. Improper endorsement is also less likely, or at least weaker, if naming rights are withheld. For an earlier debate on the endorsement issue, see the controversy at UCLA Law School over the $10 million gift from Lowell Milken in 2011. Professor Bainbridge added his thoughts here. (I note, as Professor Bainbridge does, that only Lowell’s brother Michael was charged with a crime).
In short, I do think there are some limits on the universe of acceptable university donors, but based on what I know about the Koch Brothers, I would not label them as "off-limits donors" (assuming they do and will respect academic freedom). According to the cited WSJ article, 270 universities evidently agree and have accepted gifts from the Charles Koch Foundation.
If others have thoughts to add, I would love to hear them in the comments or via e-email.
Thursday, March 13, 2014
Tuesday, March 11, 2014
I study both business law issues and shale oil and gas regulation, and I see a lot of overlaps between the two. Big business, is after all, big business.
The political intensity related to shale oil & gas development, is a concentrated version of many other types of regulation, such as we related to securities and publicly traded corporations. I am currently finalizing an article regarding the Pennsylvania Supreme Court's decision in Robinson Township v. Commonwealth, which overturned Act 13, the state's law designed to promote hydraulic fracturing and horizontal drilling. In major part, Act 13 largely eliminated local zoning of oil & gas development.
David B. Spence's article, Responsible Shale Gas Production: Moral Outrage vs. Cool Analysis, provided one good source for analyzing the regulatory backdrop of shale law and regulation. I recommend it highly.
Here's the abstract:
The relatively sudden boom in shale gas production in the United States using hydraulic fracturing has provoked increasingly intense political conflict. The debate over fracking and shale gas production has become polarized very quickly, in part because of the size of the economic and environmental stakes. This polarized debate fits a familiar template in American environmental law, pitting “cool analysis” against “moral outrage.” Opponents of fracking have generally framed their arguments in moral or ethical terms, while systematic research is beginning to build a more careful and nuanced understanding of the risks associated with shale gas production (though the record is far from complete). All of which makes the question of how to produce shale gas “responsibly” – corporate social responsibility being the focus of this symposium – very difficult to answer. This essay argues that: (i) because shale gas production entails difficult to measure and unevenly distributed costs and benefits, there is no clear responsible (read: ethically preferable) set of limitations that we ought to impose on shale gas production; and (ii) moral outrage is obscuring (or influencing perceptions of) empirical facts in the shale gas policy debate. More specifically, well-established behavioral heuristics – particularly, confirmation biases and the cultural cognition of risk – are impeding the development of a common understanding of the empirical facts necessary to guide policymaking. Recognizing this, policymakers must resist political pressures and work that much harder to ground their decisions in empirically-demonstrated facts – namely, those produced by sources that are less susceptible to these heuristics and biases. Thus, information generated by rigorous, empirical analyses performed by academic or government sources ought to be credited over anecdotes or studies associated with industry or NGOs that have staked out a clear pro or con position in the fracking debate. Indeed, responsible fracking decisions ought to consider all of the consequences of permitting, regulating or banning shale gas production, including the relative risks of shale gas production compared with the relevant energy alternatives.
Thursday, March 6, 2014
This week in Lawson v. FMR, LLC the Supreme Court extended the reach of Sarbanes-Oxley to potentially millions more employers when it ruled that SOX's whistleblower protection applies to employees of private employers that contract with publicly-traded companies. In 2002, Congress enacted SOX with whistleblower protection provisions containing civil and criminal penalties. The law clearly protects whistleblowers who work for publicly-held companies, and courts have generally ruled against employees who work for privately-held firms. But the Department of Labor’s Administrative Review Board has ruled that contractors at public companies enjoy whistleblower protection as well. The Supreme Court agreed with that assessment, with Justice Ginsburg writing for the majority. The dissent, written by Justice Sotomayor, noted the "stunning reach" based on the majority's interpretation and opined that the extension was not what Congress intended. The plaintiffs in Lawson did not work for Fidelity, but were contracted to provide advice to Fidelity Mutual Fund customers. Plaintiffs voiced concerns to management regarding problems with cost-accounting methodologies and the alleged improper retention of millions of dollars in fees. Because Fidelity has no employees of its own, it was not a party to the suit.
This development will likely be among the many that the Whistleblower Protection Advisory Committee will discuss at our meeting next week. I sit on a 12-person committee comprised of management, labor and the public for a two-year term, and we are reviewing two dozen laws that OSHA enforces to protect employees. SOX is just one of the financial laws covered by OSHA for whistleblower purposes. Although the comment/question period for the committee meeting is officially closed, those who want to submit comments or questions can still do so through http://www.regulations.gov. The meeting is open to the public on March 11th from 9 a.m. - 5 p.m. in Room N-3437 A-C, U.S. Department of Labor, 200 Constitution Ave., NW, Washington, DC 20210
Some law professors may remember when Justices Roberts and Kennedy opined on the value legal scholarship. Justice Roberts indicated in an interview that law professors spend too much time writing long law review articles about “obscure” topics. Justice Kennedy discussed the value he derives from reading blog posts by professors who write about certs granted and opinions issued. I have no doubt that most law students don’t look at law review articles unless they absolutely have to and I know that when I was a practicing lawyer both as outside counsel and as in house counsel, I almost never relied upon them. If I was dealing with a cutting-edge issue, I looked to bar journals, blog posts and case law unless I had to review legislative history.
As a new academic, I enjoy reading law review articles regularly and I read blog posts all the time. I know that outside counsel read blogs too, in part because now they’re also blogging and because sometimes counsel will email me to ask about a blog post. I encourage my students to follow bloggers and to learn the skill because one day they may need to blog for their own firms or for their employers.
Blogging provides a number of benefits for me. First, I can get ideas out in minutes rather than months via the student-edited law review process. This allows me to get feedback on works/ideas in progress. Second, it forces me to read other people’s scholarship or musings on topics that are outside of my research areas. Third, reading blogs often provides me with current and sophisticated material for my business associations and civil procedure courses. At times I assign posts from bloggers that are debating a hot topic (Hobby Lobby for example). When we discuss the Basic v. Levinson case I can look to the many blog posts discussing the Halliburton case to provide current perspective.
But as I quickly learned, not everyone in the academy is a fan of blogging. Most schools do not count it as scholarship, although some consider it service. Anyone who considers blogging should understand her school’s culture. For me the benefits outweigh the detriment. Like Justice Kennedy, I’m a fan of professors who blog. In no particular order, here are the mostly non-law firm blogs I check somewhat regularly (apologies in advance if I left some out):
http://www.theconglomerate.org/ (thanks again for giving me first opportunity to blog a few months into my academic career!)
http://law.wvu.edu/the_business_of_human_rights (currently on a short hiatus)
I would welcome any suggestions of must-reads.
March 6, 2014 in Business Associations, Corporate Governance, Corporations, Current Affairs, Entrepreneurship, Marcia L. Narine, Merger & Acquisitions, Securities Regulation, Social Enterprise, Teaching, Unincorporated Entities, Weblogs | Permalink | Comments (2)
Tuesday, March 4, 2014
West Virginia University has a new LLM program in Energy & Sustainable Development Law. At the moment, the program is open only to those with a U.S. law degree. The degree program capitalizes on a wide and deep range of expertise at WVU Law in a one of the nation's most energy-rich states. (Full bias disclosure: I direct the program.)
All students in the program are required to take both the Energy Law Survey and the Environmental Protection Law course. This is because we firmly believe that all lawyers connected to the energy sector need to have a firm grasp on both energy law issues and envirnonmental law issues. Both courses touch on each other's area, but having both courses as a base will lead to better prepared professionals, whether the graduate wants to work for industry, an NGO, or a regulator.
We also require some form of experiential learning, a portfolio of written work, and a Research Paper or Field-Work Project. Full details of the program are here. For this venue, and in my area of interest, I will note our business offerings. I teach my Energy Business: Law & Strategy course, details here, in addition to my Business Organizations course and the Energy Law Survey. We also have great variety of courses in energy law, environmental law, and sustainable development law.
In addition, we have a fellowship opportunity in the Land Use and Sustainable Development Clinic. This fellowship is a part-time (at least twenty hours per week), two-year position from August 2014 through July 2016. The Fellow will receive an annual stipend of $20,000 and tuition remission for the LL.M. program. The Fellow would take 6-7 credits per semester allowing time for part-time work at the Clinic. Details available here.
In a world where the Future of Business is the Future of Energy, this program is one option to consider.
Wednesday, February 26, 2014
As previously noted on this blog, 44 law professors filed an amicus brief in Sebelius v. Hobby Lobby Stores, Inc., outlining several corporate law issues in the arts-and-craft store chain’s request for a religious exemption from complying with contraceptive requirements in the Affordable Care Act. That brief prompted several responses and sparked a corporate law debate, which is being recapped and weighed in on at Business Law Prof Blog (see earlier thoughtful posts: here, here, and here by Stefan Padfield and Haskell Murray).
So what is at stake in this case? Religious exemptions for corporations. The role of benefit corporations and other hybrid, triple bottom line entities. The classic entity theory vs. aggregate theory debate of how do we treat the legal fiction of individuals acting through businesses and businesses acting, in part, on behalf of people. The role and future of Corporate Social Responsibility generally. Corporate personhood. Corporate constitutional rights. And existential questions like can corporations pray? You know, easy stuff.
CSR. Our laws set the floor; they establish the minimum that social actors must do and that other members in our society can expect to receive. Corporate social responsibility asks companies to do more than their minimum legal obligations and to do so for a host of reasons, some of which may be religious. The owners of Hobby Lobby can elect a corporate board that will authorize the company to donate to religious charities, to reimburse employees for religious expenses, to provide paid leave for a mission trip, or to not operate on Sundays. (Who here hasn’t craved a chicken biscuit on a road trip only to realize that Chick-Fil-A is closed on Sunday? Just us in the south?). Under what I will call the standard state corporate law regime, corporations can take actions like increasing their use of renewable energy sources, implementing diversity programs for women and minorities, refusing to support tobacco products and other actions that are in line with CSR. Whether for religious or environmental or other conscience-driven reasons, a corporation may take these actions and the directors of the corporation (under whose governance the acts took place) are protected by the business judgment rule in the event that any shareholder challenges the program or expenditure as a form of waste or conflict of interest.
Benefit Corporations & Hybrid Entities. For companies incorporated in states with benefit corporate statutes or laws that recognize hybrid entities interested in seeking (but not always maximizing) profits and other goals, there is even greater protection. These entities contain provisions in their charters identifying their “other” purpose, the shareholders are on notice of the dual pursuit and the corporate actions are protected by statutes recognizing this charter-based exception to profit maximization. In the event a shareholder sues for waste or conflicts of interest, not only is the business judgment rule available to protect the corporate actors, but the validity of the corporate action is strengthened by the special legislation. [This in no way captures the full scope of benefit corporation and hybrid entity legislation, but this post is about religious exemptions for corporations, so please excuse the over simplification here.]
Hobby Lobby. The owners of Hobby Lobby are not asking to do more, rather they are asking to do less. Hobby Lobby want to provide less than the standards established in the Affordable Care Act, and less than their competitors will be required to provide. Who would complain if Hobby Lobby failed to comply with the ACA? The employees without access to contraceptive medicine, and the federal government. This isn’t about the business judgment rule and whether owners, acting through boards of directors, can run companies in line with their view of religious or social or environmental consciousness. This case asks can the religious beliefs of owners of a corporation entitle that corporation to do less under the law and as compared to their competitors. On these grounds, deciding against a religious based exemption for Hobby Lobby does no harm to CSR or benefit corporations.
The Hypothetical. If the privately held religious belief of owners can change legal obligations for corporate actors, this could pose a threat to the stability, reliability and uniformity of the floor that the law sets. Poking a hole in the floor for religious exemptions based upon the owners’ religious beliefs may seem like a small concession in the Hobby Lobby case. If religion is a means to opt-out of regulations and requirements, and if doing so could lower costs, shortcut compliance obligations and otherwise provide a competitive edge there will be robust incentives for businesses to claim such an exception in a likely wide array of issues.
The Horrible. The sacred ground of religion has long been an unhappy refuge for arguments in support of racial, gender, religious and sexual-orientation discrimination. Every major social movement that I can think of has met resistance shrouded in religious beliefs. The right for women to vote (and the continuing progress towards equality), desegregating schools, the Civil Rights Acts, and our most modern example: gay rights. Consider the law that the Arizona Legislature passed last week that would exempt businesses refusing to serve same-sex couples from civil liability on the grounds of a religious exemption. Substantially similar legislation is pending in Georgia.
Religion, if we have it, should call us to do more and to be better. As individuals, we may disagree about what “more” and “better” means. I have no doubt that the owners of Hobby Lobby believe that their stance on birth control is consistent with their view of “more” and “better”. As individuals, they can express that value in many ways. As owners of a corporation they can express those values by electing directors that will govern the company and possibly pursue corporate donations to abstinence charities, promote natural family planning among employees via posters in the break room, and other avenues. The individual values of the owners should not be used to excuse the corporation from compliance with the legal standard. Individual religious views should not lower the minimum standards for corporate actions in this context, or others.