Friday, March 20, 2015

Etsy's Dilemma

Etsy

The biggest recent news in the social enterprise world is that certified B corporation Etsy is going public.

Despite confusing press releases, Etsy is not legally formed as a benefit corporation, they are only certified by B Lab. (In one of the coolest comments I have received blogging, an Etsy representative admitted that they confused the "benefit corporation" and "certified B corporation" terms and corrected their public statements). If you are new to social enterprise, the differences between a "certified B corporation" and a "benefit corporation" are explained here.  

Etsy, however, will face a dilemma as noted in this article sent to me by Alicia Plerhoples (Georgetown). The B Lab terms for certified B corporations require Etsy to convert to a public benefit corporation (Delaware's version of the benefit corporation) within four years of the Delaware law becoming effective. Delaware's public benefit corporation law went effective August 1, 2013.

So, unless B Lab changes its terms, Etsy will lose its certified B corporation status if it does not convert to a public benefit corporation on or before August 1, 2017.

Given that converting to a public benefit corporation while publicly-traded would be extremely difficult--obtaining the necessary vote, paying dissenters' rights, etc.--I imagine Etsy will need to make this decision before it goes public. Perhaps, Etsy will postpone the decision, and hope that they can just quietly lose their certification in 2017 or that B Lab will make an exception for them. Etsy's CEO is on record promising social responsibility, but we will see whether that promise includes maintaining B Lab certification and making a legal entity change.  

Currently, I am not aware of any publicly-traded benefit corporations, though Delaware public benefit corporation Plum Organics is a subsidiary of publicly-traded Campbell Soup Company.

Many interesting issues would stem from a publicly-traded benefit corporation; I have added a number of items to my article ideas list this morning.

This Etsy story is one I hope to follow, so stay tuned.

 

March 20, 2015 in Business Associations, Corporate Governance, Delaware, Haskell Murray, Social Enterprise | Permalink | Comments (0)

Thursday, March 19, 2015

This I Believe: On Corporate Purpose and the Business Judgment Rule

Prof. Bainbridge yesterday posted about The Modern Corporation Statement on Company Law.  The statement has ten fundamental rules, of which number ten is:

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.

Prof. Bainbridge is with Delaware Chief Justice Strine in that profit maximization is the only role (or at least only filter) for board members.  As he asserts, “The relationship between the shareholder wealth maximization norm and the business judgment rule, . . . explains why the business judgment rule is consistent with the director's  "legal obligation to maximise profits for their shareholders." 

CJ Strine has noted that the eBay decision, which I have written about a lot, says that if “you remain incorporated in Delaware, your stockholders will be able to hold you accountable for putting their interests first.”  I think this is right, but I remain convinced that absent self-dealing or a “pet project,” directors get to decide that what is in the shareholders best interests.

I have been criticized in some sectors for being too pro-business for my views on corporate governance, veil piercing law, and energy policy.  In contrast, I have also been said to be a “leftist commentator,” in some contexts, and I have been cited by none other than Chief Justice Strine as supporting a “liberal” view of corporate norms for my views on the freedom of director choice. 

When it comes to the Business Judgment Rule, I think it might be just that I believe in a more hands-off view of director primacy more than many of both my “liberal” and “conservative” colleagues. Frankly, I don’t get too exercised by many of the corporate decisions that seem to agitate one side or the other.  I thought I’d try to reconcile my views on this in a short statement. I decided to use the model from This I Believe, based on the 1950s Edward R. Murrow radio show.  (Using the Crash Davis model I started with was a lot less family friendly.) Here’s what I came up with:   

I believe in the theory of Director Primacy.  I believe in the Business Judgment Rule as an abstention doctrine, and I believe that Corporate Social Responsibility is choice, not a mandate. I believe in long-term planning over short-term profits, but I believe that directors get to choose either one to be the focus of their companies.  I believe that directors can choose to pursue profit through corporate philanthropy and good works in the community or through mergers and acquisitions with a plan to slash worker benefits and sell-off a business in pieces. I believe that a corporation can make religious-based decisions—such as closing on Sundays—and that a corporation can make worker-based decisions—such as providing top-quality health care and parental leave—but I believe both such bases for decisions must be rooted in the directors’ judgment such decisions will maximize the value of the business for shareholders for the decision to get the benefit of business judgment rule protection. I believe that directors, and to shareholder or judges, should make decisions about how a company should pursue profit and stability.  I believe that public companies should be able to plan like private companies, and I believe the decision to expand or change a business model is the decision of the directors and only the directors. I believe that respect for directors’ business judgment allows for coexistence of companies of multiple views—from CVS Caremark and craigslist to Wal-Mart and Hobby Lobby—without necessarily violating any shareholder wealth maximization norms. Finally, I believe that the exercise of business judgment should not be run through a liberal or conservative filter because liberal and conservative business leaders have both been responsible for massive long-term wealth creation.  This, I believe.      

March 19, 2015 in Business Associations, Corporate Governance, Corporate Personality, Corporations, CSR, Delaware, Joshua P. Fershee, LLCs, M&A, Social Enterprise | Permalink | Comments (5)

Tuesday, March 3, 2015

A Delaware Law Insider: A Nexus between Shareholder Activism & Hobby Lobby?

The Fordham Journal of Corporate and Financial Law recently published a March 6, 2014, lecture from Former Delaware Supreme Court Chief Justice Myron T. Steele, Continuity and Change in Delaware Corporate Law Jurisprudence (available on Westlaw, but fee may apply).  As an aside, I'll note that it appears to have taken a full calendar year for this to get published (at least on Westlaw), which seems crazy to me.  If there's any question why legal blogs can fill such a critical role in providing timely commentary on legal issues, this is a big part of the answer.

In the lecture, Chief Justice Steele discusses three main areas: (1) multi-forum jurisdiction, (2) shareholder activism, and (3) the Nevada, Delaware, and North Dakota Debate (a "competition for charters"). 

As to multi-forum jurisdiction, he makes the unsurprising point that Delaware courts are of the view that first impressions of the Delaware General Corporation Law or other "internal affairs doctrine" issues should be handled in Delaware courts.  Of note, he explains that the Delaware constitution (art. IV, § 11(8)) now allows federal courts, the top court from any state, the SEC, and bankruptcy courts to certify questions directly to the Delaware Supreme Court.  This option is one that lawyers litigating such cases in other forums won't want to miss.    

With regard to shareholder activism, Chief Justice Steele states, 

In my preferred system for the world, and I think in the minds of all Delaware judges, engaged if not antagonistic stockholders add positive value as a check on director authority and are a catalyst for corrective accountability, so long as their efforts focus on improved performance and not the advancement of political or personal agendas--a major caveat in my view. Delaware courts, it seems to me, will increasingly recognize the benefits that engaged investors bring to the table.

This is an interesting take, and it seems consistent with my read of most Delaware law. I am of the view that shareholders should have a lot of latitude to engage and even agitate, if they wish, as long as they follow the rules they agreed to in the corporate charter and bylaws (and applicable state law, of course).  There is concern that a court might determine an action to be political or personal in nature if it something with which the court does not agree, but that could happen on the political left or right, and judgment is always a risk at some point.  Delaware courts are usually up to the task.
 
Chief Justice Steele's view on this lends further credence to a view I have held since the Burwell v. Hobby Lobby Stores decision came out: Delaware corporations cannot use the Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA) to justify their business decisions.  That is, RFRA applies in Delaware, but RFRA does not pre-empt Delaware corporations law, so RFRA cannot be used as a rationale for decision making, at least where a shareholder objects. In Hobby Lobby, Justice Alito wrote:
State corporate law provides a ready means for resolving any conflicts by, for example, dictating how a corporation can establish its governing structure. See, e.g.ibid; id., §3:2; Del. Code Ann., Tit. 8, §351 (2011) (providing that certificate of incorporation may provide how “the business of the corporation shall be managed”). Courts will turn to that structure and the underlying state law in resolving disputes.
Combine this with Chief Justice Steele's warning against company governance for the "advancement of political or personal agendas" and recent cases requiring Delaware corporation to seek profit, it seems Delaware courts are skeptical of non-profit-seeking rationales for shareholder or director action.  As Chancellor Chandler explained in eBay v. Newmark (more here):

The corporate form in which [an Delaware corporation] operates, however, is not an appropriate vehicle for purely philanthropic ends, at least not when there are other stockholders interested in realizing a return on their investment. . . . Having chosen a for-profit corporate form, . . . directors are bound by the fiduciary duties and standards that accompany that form. Those standards include acting to promote the value of the corporation for the benefit of its stockholders.

Thus, in Delaware a for-profit corporation cannot promote or practice the religious views of even a majority of directors or shareholders where such actions do not promote the value of the corporation for shareholders. 

Finally, as to the Nevada, Delaware, North Dakota debate, Chief Justice Steele questions the value of Nevada allowing "charters to exculpate directors for breaches of duty of loyalty," because he thinks such a massive change in widely held views of fiduciary duty law could invite federal "meddling."  I think he's exactly right on this.  He notes with skepticism the North Dakota Publicly Traded Corporations Act because there are only two companies that have adopted the law, but the law's failure in the competition for charter does not raise the same concerns of a race to the bottom (my words) that Nevada's law provides.

I think Chief Justice Steele's article provides interesting and useful insight into the workings of the Delaware court system, and I recommend the sort read.  I just wish I had seen it about nine months ago.  

March 3, 2015 in Business Associations, Corporate Governance, Corporate Personality, Corporations, Delaware, Joshua P. Fershee, Social Enterprise | Permalink | Comments (0)

Monday, February 23, 2015

Collins "C.J." Seitz, Jr. Nominated to the Delaware Supreme Court

Seitz

The Chancery Daily reports that Governor Markell has nominated Collins "C.J." Seitz, Jr. to the Delaware Supreme Court. The January 31, 2015 retirement of Justice Henry duPont Ridgely created the vacancy.

C.J. Seitz, Jr. has over thirty years of corporate/commercial/IP litigation experience and is a respected, influential member of the Delaware bar. He has also served as mediator, arbitrator, or special master in numerous cases.  He currently serves as a founding partner of Seitz Ross Aronstam & Moritz LLP.

February 23, 2015 in Business Associations, Delaware, Haskell Murray | Permalink | Comments (0)

Friday, February 20, 2015

Moultrie on Legal Employment

Joan Heminway and I must be thinking similar thoughts because before I even saw her helpful post on business law jobs, I asked my former research assistant Samuel Moultrie to share his thoughts and advice on finding legal employment in this economic environment.

Sam is one of the hardest workers I know and took his job search seriously. He also took a big risk by going beyond the typical employers we had recruiting on campus when we were at Regent Law – mostly non-profits, government agencies, and a few VA and NC law firms. Sam wanted to practice in the state that has the greatest influence on U.S. corporate law and has made it happen. His journey was not and is not easy, but I thought his story might be inspiring. Recently, Sam was also selected as a 2015 Leadership Delaware Fellow. Sam’s thoughts on finding legal employment are reproduced below. 

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By: Samuel L. Moultrie

The job market for recent law school graduates is, without a doubt, miserable.  While the statistics seem to vary, I think it is safe to say that the supply of new law school graduates exceeds the number of legal job openings.  Nevertheless, graduates should not lose all hope.  Any law school graduate can find a job, if they are motivated, willing to work hard, and take steps to distinguish themselves. 

[More after the break]

Continue reading

February 20, 2015 in Business Associations, Delaware, Haskell Murray, Jobs | Permalink | Comments (0)

Thursday, February 12, 2015

“We Just Can’t Get Enough of Business Associations”

My seventy business associations students work in law firms on group projects. Law students, unlike business students, don’t particularly like group work at first, even though it requires them to use the skills they will need most as lawyers—the abilities to negotiate, influence, listen, and compromise. Today, as they were doing their group work on buy-sell agreements for an LLC, I started drafting today’s blog post in which I intended to comment on co-blogger Joan Heminway’s post earlier this week about our presentation at Emory on teaching transactional law.

While I was drafting the post, I saw, ironically, an article featuring Professor Michelle Harner, the author of the very exercise that my students were working on. The article discussed various law school programs that were attempting to instill business skills in today’s law students. Most of the schools were training “practice ready” lawyers for big law firms and corporations. I have a different goal. My students will be like most US law school graduates and will work in firms of ten lawyers or less. If they do transactional work, it will likely be for small businesses.  Accordingly, despite my BigLaw and in-house background, I try to focus a lot of the class discussion and group work on what they will see in their real world.

I realized midway through the time allotted in today’s class that the students were spending so much time parsing through the Delaware LLC statute and arguing about proposed changes to the operating agreement in the exercise that they would never finish in time. I announced to the class that they could leave 10 minutes early because they would need to spend at least another hour over the next day finishing their work. Instead most of the class stayed well past the end of class time arguing about provisions, thinking about negotiation tactics with the various members of the LLC, and figuring out which rules were mandatory and which were default. When I told them that they actually needed to vacate the room so another class could enter, a student said, “we just can’t get enough of business associations.” While this comment was meant to be a joke, I couldn’t help but be gratified by the passion that the students displayed while doing this in-class project.  I have always believed that students learn best by doing something related to the statutes rather than reading the dry words crafted by legislators.  My civil procedure students have told me that they feel “advanced” now that they have drafted complaints, answers, and client memos about Rule 15 amendments.

I am certainly no expert on how to engage law students, but I do recommend reading the article that Joan posted, and indeed the whole journal (15 Transactions: Tenn. J. Bus. L. 547 (2014). Finally, please share any ideas you have on keeping students interested in the classroom and prepared for the clients that await them. 

 

February 12, 2015 in Business Associations, Business School, Conferences, Corporations, Delaware, Joan Heminway, Law School, LLCs, Marcia Narine, Negotiation, Teaching, Unincorporated Entities | Permalink | Comments (1)

Thursday, February 5, 2015

The SEC's Inaction on No Action

Many corporate governance professionals have been scratching their heads lately. In November, a federal judge in Delaware ruled that Wal-Mart had wrongfully excluded a shareholder proposal by Trinity Wall Street Church regarding the sale of guns and other products. Specifically, the proposal requested amendment of one of the Board Committee Charters to:

27. Provid[e] oversight concerning the formulation and implementation of, and the public reporting of the formulation and implementation of, policies and standards that determine whether or not the Company [i.e., Wal-Mart] should sell a product that:

1) especially endangers public safety and wellbeing;

2) has the substantial potential to impair the reputation of the Company; and/or

3) would reasonably be considered by many offensive to the family and community values integral to the Company's promotion of its brand. 

Wal-Mart filed with the SEC under Rule 14a-8 indicating that it planned to exclude the proposal under the ordinary business operations exclusion. The SEC agreed that there was a basis for exclusion under 14a-8(i)(7), but the District Court thought otherwise because the proposal related to a “sufficiently significant social policy.” In mid-January Wal-Mart appealed to the Third Circuit arguing among other things that the district court should have deferred to the SEC’s precedents and guidance over the past forty years on these issues.

In an unrelated but relevant matter in December 2014, the SEC issued a no action letter to Whole Foods stating:

You represent that matters to be voted on at the upcoming stockholders' meeting include a proposal sponsored by Whole Foods Market to amend Whole Foods Market's bylaws to allow any shareholder owning 9% or more of Whole Foods Market's common stock for five years to nominate candidates for election to the board and require Whole Foods Market to list such nominees with the board's nominees in Whole Foods Market's proxy statement. You indicate that the proposal and the proposal sponsored by Whole Foods Market directly conflict. You also indicate that inclusion of both proposals would present alternative and conflicting decisions for the stockholders and would create the potential for inconsistent and ambiguous results. Accordingly, we will not recommend enforcement action to the Commission if Whole Foods Market omits the proposal from its proxy materials in reliance on rule 14a-8(i)(9).

In a startling turn of events, the SEC withdrew its no action letter on January 16, 2015 after a January 9th letter from the Council of Institutional Investors questioning the reasoning in the Whole Foods and similar no action letters. The withdrawal of the no action letter came on the same day as the release an official SEC statement declining “to express a view on the application of Rule 14a-8(i)(9) during the current proxy season” due to questions about the scope and application of the rule.

Yesterday, the Center for Capital Market Competitiveness (“CCMC”), an arm of the Chamber of Commerce, sent its own letter to Chair White lamenting the current state of affairs. An excerpt is below:

This announcement, a contradictory departure from a decision made just weeks earlier, benefits neither issuers nor investors and introduces an additional layer of uncertainty into an already complicated set of rules. The CCMC believes this reversal underscores why corporate governance policies must provide certainty for all stakeholders, not just to advance the goals of a small minority of special interest activists….[t]he January 16 announcement places many issuers in an untenable position, and presents them with a series of questions for which there may be no good answers. For those issuers wishing to present their own alternative proposal to shareholders for consideration, do they exclude a shareholder proposal in favor of their own and face the heightened risk of litigation with the proponent or the Commission? Do they risk shareholder confusion by including both their own proposal and a competing one from a proponent? Do they incur the added expense and distraction to management of seeking declaratory relief in federal district court? Are shareholders deprived of their right to include a proposal that is omitted because of the absence of SEC action? Far from encouraging private ordering, the recent announcement will only serve to stymie it.

The CCMC also recommends a review of the entire 14a-8 process because, as the letter claims,  “it is well-known that the shareholder proposal process has been dominated by a small group of special interest activists, including groups affiliated with organized labor, certain religious orders, social and public policy advocates, and a handful of serial activists. These special interests use the shareholder proposal process to pursue their own idiosyncratic agendas, often far removed from the mainstream, as evidenced by the overall low approval rates of many shareholder proposals that are put to a vote. Indeed, mainstream institutional investors account for only one percent of shareholder proposals at the Fortune 250.” 

Reasonable people may disagree on how the CCMC characterizes the motives behind the shareholder proposals, but there can be no disagreement that the current SEC silence doesn't serve any constituency. Steve Bainbridge also has an informative post on this topic. Proxy season is coming up and shareholders and companies alike are awaiting a decision from the Third Circuit in the Wal-Mart action that could dramatically alter the landscape for shareholder proposals, possibly flooding the courts with expensive, protracted litigation. The timing couldn’t be worse for the SEC’s lack of action on no action letters.

 

 

 

 

February 5, 2015 in Corporate Finance, Corporate Governance, Corporations, Current Affairs, Delaware, Financial Markets, Marcia Narine, Securities Regulation, Social Enterprise | Permalink | Comments (0)

Thursday, January 15, 2015

Top 25 tweets for business lawyers from AALS

Greetings from Dublin. Between the Guinness tour, the champagne afternoon tea, and the jet lag, I don’t have the mental energy to do the blog I planned to write with a deep analysis of the AALS conference in DC. I live tweeted for several days and here my top 25 tweets from the conference. I have also added some that I re-tweeted from sessions I did not attend. I apologize for any misspellings and for the potentially misleading title of this post:

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Next week I will write about the reason I'm in Dublin.

January 15, 2015 in Business Associations, Conferences, Corporate Finance, Corporate Governance, Corporate Personality, Corporations, CSR, Delaware, Financial Markets, Marcia Narine, Securities Regulation, Travel | Permalink | Comments (0)

Friday, January 9, 2015

A Few Recent Delaware Cases

There are many Delaware cases from 2014 that are worth reading, but below are three relatively recent Delaware cases that I found worthwhile.  I provide the case name, my very short takeaway, and links to the case and additional commentary for those who wish to dive deeper.

In re Zhongpin Inc. Stockholders Litigation, controlling stockholders, decided Nov. 26, 2014. In denying a motion to dismiss, the Delaware Court of Chancery found a reasonable inference that a 17.3% stockholder/CEO could be a “controlling stockholder.” I have not done an exhaustive search on this issue, but this is a lower percentage of ownership for a “controlling stockholder” than I have seen in most cases, though (of course) the analysis is case specific. Additional commentary by Toby Myerson (Paul Weiss).

C.J. Energy Services, Inc. et al v. City of Miami General Employees’ and Sanitation Employees’ Retirement Trust, M&A/Revlon, decided Dec. 19, 2014. The Delaware Court of Chancery held that “there was a ‘plausible’ violation of the board’s Revlon duties because the board did not affirmatively shop the company either before or after signing.” (pg. 3). The Delaware Court of Chancery enjoined the shareholder vote on the transaction at issue for 30-days and “required [the defendant] to shop itself in violation of the merger agreement . . . which prohibited [the defendant] from soliciting other bids.” Id.  In this case, the Delaware Supreme Court reserved, stating that the Court of Chancery did not fulfill the stringent requirements for issuing a mandatory injunction, reminding that there are various ways to satisfy Revlon, and mentioning that this case did not have evidence of “defensive, entrenching motives,” as seen in Revlon and QVC. Note that the 38-page opinion was cranked out in just two days after the case was submitted. The handling of these expedited cases by the Delaware courts is one of the things that make Delaware attractive to corporations. Additional commentary by Brian Quinn (Boston College).

United Technologies Corp. v. Lawrence Treppel, books and records, decided Dec. 23, 2014.  The Delaware Supreme Court reversed the Delaware Court of Chancery’s holding that the Court of Chancery did not have authority to restrict documents produced in a books and records inspection to use only in cases filed in Delaware courts. The Delaware Supreme Court remanded to the Delaware Court of Chancery to decide whether the Court of Chancery will exercise its discretion to so restrict the use of the information obtained in the books and records inspection. In this case, United Technologies insisted that Treppel sign a confidentiality agreement when he sought to inspect books and records, which is fairly common, but the confidentiality agreement also limited the forum, of any claim brought using the information inspected, to Delaware courts. At the time of the inspection request, United Technologies did not have a forum selection clause in its bylaws, but it later adopted one. As the broader forum selection debates continue, it will be interesting to see how the Delaware Court of Chancery handles this case in the books and records context, especially because the Delaware Court of Chancery has been encouraging plaintiffs to use the “tools at hand,” such as books and records requests, before filing derivative lawsuits.  Beyond the substance, one remarkable thing about this decision is that Chief Justice Leo Strine authored an opinion that was only 14 pages. When he was on the Court of Chancery he would author 100+ page opinions with some regularity. Granted, the Court of Chancery is a trial court and their opinions tend to be a good bit longer than the Delaware Supreme Court opinions, regardless of the judge. Additional commentary by Celia Taylor (Denver Law).  

For reading beyond these three cases, former Delaware Supreme Court Justice Jack Jacobs comments on two additional recent Delaware cases here (M&A related). 

January 9, 2015 in Business Associations, Corporate Governance, Corporations, Delaware, Haskell Murray, M&A | Permalink | Comments (3)

Friday, December 12, 2014

Challenge to Termination Fee Survives Motion to Dismiss

The Delaware Court of Chancery recently denied a motion to dismiss in In re Comverge, Inc. Shareholders Litigation. In this case, the plaintiff claimed bad faith by the board of directors that approved an allegedly unreasonable termination fee in a merger agreement. Transactional attorneys and professors who teach M&A will want to read this case.  

I am deep into grading my business associations exams, so I will outsource to a nice client alert on the case by Steven Haas at Hunton & Williams. A bit of the alert is below, and you can access the entire alert here.

The court then found that the termination fees of 5.55% of equity value (or 5.2% of enterprise value) during the go-shop period and 7% of equity value (or 6.6% enterprise value) after the go-shop period “test the limits of what this Court has found to be within a reasonable range for termination fees.” The court also analyzed the termination fee in connection with the convertible note held by the buyer in connection with the bridge financing. The plaintiff alleged that the conversion feature in the note, which allowed the buyer to purchase common stock at a price below the merger consideration, would significantly increase the cost to a topping bidder of acquiring the company. Factoring in that cost to the existing termination fee, the plaintiff argued, would result in a total payment equal to 11.6% of the deal’s equity value during the go-shop period and 13.1% of the deal’s equity value after the go-shop period.

The court concluded that, for purposes of surviving a motion to dismiss, it was “reasonably conceivable that the Convertible Notes theoretically could have worked in tandem with the termination fees effectively to prevent a topping bid” from a buyer that might otherwise offer greater value to the company’s stockholders. Perhaps more importantly, the court found that the plaintiff adequately alleged that the board of directors acted in bad faith in approving these terms....

Despite the amount of litigation challenging M&A transactions, there are not many Delaware rulings that have upheld challenges to deal protections such as termination fees, matching rights, and no-shop provisions. This is because the Delaware courts have generally created a body of precedent that provides helpful guidance to buyers and sellers and also recognized the value of such terms. In Comverge, the parties appear to have deviated from this precedent, but more importantly, the court looked to the bridge loan to view the aggregate effect of the various terms on the ability of a third party to make a topping bid. 

December 12, 2014 in Business Associations, Corporate Governance, Delaware, Haskell Murray, M&A | Permalink | Comments (0)

Monday, December 1, 2014

Teaching Corporate Fiduciary Duties in a Basic Business Associations Course [heavy sigh]

Well, here we are at the end of another semester.  I just finished teaching my last class in our new, three-credit-hour, basic Business Associations offering.  (Next semester, I take my first shot at teaching a two-credit-hour advanced version of Business Associations.  More to come on that at a later date.)  The basic Business Associations course is intended to be an introduction to the doctrine and norms of business associations law--it is broad-based and designed to provide a foundation for practice (of whatever kind).  I hope I didn't make hash out of everything in cutting back the material covered from the predecessor four-credit-hour version of Business Associations . . . .

I find teaching fiduciary duty in the corporations part of the basic Business Associations course more than a bit humbling.  There is a lot there to offer, and one can only cover so much (whether in a three-credit-hour or four-credit-hour course format).  Every year, I steel myself for the inevitable questions--in class, on the class website (TWEN), and in the post-term review session (scheduled for today at 5 PM)--about the law of fiduciary duty as it applies to directors.  This past weekend, I received a question in that category on the course website.  In pertinent part, it read as follows (as edited for fluency in some places):

I am having problems with understanding the duty of loyalty for directors.

First, . . . I don't think I know which transactions are breaches of loyalty. Do they include interested director transactions, competition, officer's compensation, and not acting in good faith? Second, do care, good faith, and loyalty all require that the directors be grossly negligent? I think I am just confused on the standard to determine whether a director has breached the duty of loyalty and/or care.  

Also, I have in my notes "use the entire fairness test" . . . .
 
You get the picture.  It's hard to resist the temptation to re-teach the entire part of the course on corporate fiduciary duties when one gets a question/series of questions like this.  I did, in fact, resist.  I will spare you the entire substance of my response (unpacking the ways to think through the question presented using the material we covered in the course), but here are the key, process-oriented paragraphs:
 
 . . . It is somewhat meaningless, except by example, to focus on "transactions" that breach the duty of loyalty.  Among other things, not all breaches of duty occur in the context of transactions.  Fiduciary duty is an obligation that the board carries with it in conducting its activities in managing the business and affairs of the corporation.
 
 . . .
 
That's a long answer to your question, but I sensed that you needed to slow down and remember (1) what fiduciary duty is and (2) where it comes from before you started to think about (3) circumstances in which litigants have claimed breaches of those duties (not all transactions) and (4) ways in which courts have treated those claims.  Separate out these four things and review the cases (and sparse related statutory law) we have covered to ensure that you "see" all this.  You may decide I have over-simplified here (and I have).  But it should help get you back on a productive path.
 
How do you answer questions like this when they are posed to you at the end of the semester?  I am always looking to get better at what I do in and outside the classroom, and since I know I will get these kinds of questions every time I teach the course (varying somewhat in content from year to year and student to student), I am interested in learning how others approach this type of question.  I am all ears, so fill them with ideas . . . .

December 1, 2014 in Business Associations, Corporate Governance, Corporations, Delaware, Joan Heminway | Permalink | Comments (4)

Tuesday, November 18, 2014

Good Grief! Courts Can Only Get So Much Right on LLC Law

I’m starting to think that courts are playing the role of Lucy to my Charlie Brown, and proper description of LLCs is the football.  In follow up to my post last Friday, I went looking for a case that makes clear that an LLC’s status as a disregarded entity for IRS tax purposes is insufficient to support veil piercing.  And I found one.  The case explains:

Plaintiff . . . failed to provide any case law supporting his theory of attributing liability to Aegis LLC because of the existence of a pass-through tax structure of a disregarded entity. Pl.'s Opp'n. [50]. Between 2006 and 2008, when 100% of Aegis LLC's shares were owned by Aegis UK, Aegis LLC was treated as a disregarded entity by the IRS and the taxable income earned by Aegis LLC was reflected in federal and District of Columbia tax returns filed by Aegis UK. Day Decl. Oct. 2012 [48–1] at ¶ 37. In the case of a limited liability corporation with only one owner, the limited liability corporation must be classified as a disregarded entity. 26 C.F.R. § 301.7701–2(c)(2). Instead of filing a separate tax return for the limited liability corporation, the owner would report the income of the disregarded entity directly on the owner's tax return. Id. Moreover, determining whether corporate formalities have been disregarded requires more than just recognizing the tax arrangements between a corporation and its shareholders. See United States v. Acambaro Mexican Restaurant, Inc., 631 F.3d 880, 883 (8th Cir.2011). Given the above analysis, the undersigned finds that there is no unity of ownership and interest between Aegis UK and Aegis LLC.

Alkanani v. Aegis Def. Servs., LLC, 976 F. Supp. 2d 1, 9-10 (D.D.C. 2013).

 As Charlie Brown would say, "Aaugh!

So the case makes clear, as I was hoping, that it is not appropriate to use pass-through tax status to find a unity of interest and ownership in a way that will support veil piercing.  But the court then screws up the description of the very nature of LLCs.  This is not a “case of a limited liability corporation!” It's a case of a limited liability company, which is a not a corporation. 

Moreover, to use the court’s language, while it is true that “determining whether corporate formalities have been disregarded requires more than just recognizing the tax arrangements between a corporation and its shareholders,” the premise of the case has to do with an LLC’s status. Thus, the court should, at a minimum, make clear it knows the difference.  The statement, then, would go something like this:  "Determining whether LLC formalities have been disregarded requires more than just recognizing the tax arrangements between an LLC and its members.” 

It’s worth noting the entity formalities for LLCs are significantly less that those of corporations, so the formalities portion of LLC veil piecing test should be minimal, but that's a different issue.

Anyway, like Charlie Brown, I will keep kicking at that football, expecting, despite substantial evidence to the contrary, that one day it will be there for me to kick. At least I don't have to go it alone.  

November 18, 2014 in Business Associations, Corporations, Delaware, Joshua P. Fershee, LLCs | Permalink | Comments (2)

Thursday, November 13, 2014

What do lawyers and judges need to know about LLCs?

Understandably, business law professors get upset when people who should know better- judges for example- mischaracterize LLCs. I say we should be even more angry at the law clerks drafting the opinions. Many judges had no exposure to LLCs in law school but clerks graduating today certainly have. 
 
Given the ubiquity of LLCs now, I was surprised to learn that among the many outstanding CALI (Computer-Aided Legal Instruction) lessons, there are none on LLCs. (Hat tip to co-blogger Steve Bradford- my students love him now). I have volunteered to work on at least one and maybe more in the coming months. I canvassed some colleagues for their must-haves for these LLC lessons. In no particular order, here's the current list:
 

1) Difference between LLCs, corporations and partnerships 

2) Del. and ULLCA coverage of fiduciary duties, and especially the issue of contractual waiver and default 

3) Ease of formation
 
4) Expense of formation
 
5) Ease of maintenance    
 
6) Expense of maintenance
 
7) Restrictions re. business purpose or activity
 
8) Continuity of life/limitations on existence
 
9) Label for/characteristics (incl. transferability) of ownership interests
 
10) Restrictions re. owners (number, type, or other)
 
11) Authority to bind/create liability for the firm
 
12) Personal liability of owners to outsiders
 
13) Form of management/rights to manage
 
14) Existence/characteristics of monitoring managers/board of directors
 
15) Other (additional governance rules, rights, obligations, etc.)
 
16) Entitlement to income and assets
 
17) Liability for taxes and other governmental obligations
 
18) How investors can get money OUT of an LLC
 

19) No right to distributions, and no right to vote for distributions if manager-managed

20) No right to salary or employment

21)  Taxable liability for LLC membership

22) Exit rights—voluntary withdrawals vs. restricted withdrawals, and whether or not that comes with the ability to force the return of an investment or a new status as a creditor of the LLC

23) Liability for improper distributions

24) Veil piercing, particularly given the lack of corporate formalities

I would love some feedback from practitioners as well. What do law students and practicing lawyers need to know about LLCs? What's missing from this list? What should I get rid of? Please feel free to comment below or to email your thoughts to mnarine@stu.edu

 

 

 

November 13, 2014 in Business Associations, C. Steven Bradford, Corporate Personality, Corporations, Delaware, Law School, LLCs, Marcia Narine, Partnership, Teaching, Unincorporated Entities | Permalink | Comments (1)

Monday, November 3, 2014

Preventative Lawyering and Succession Planning

On Monday, The University of Tennessee (UT) College of Law hosted Larry Cunningham to talk about his book, Berkshire Beyond Buffett: The Enduring Value of Values, which he previewed with us here on the BLPB a few months ago in a series of posts (here, here, and here).  As you may recall, the book focuses on corporate culture and succession planning at Berkshire Hathaway.  Joining Larry at the book session was UT College of Law alumnus James L. (Jim) Clayton, Chairman and principal shareholder of Clayton Bank and the founder of Clayton Homes, one of the Berkshire Hathaway subsidiaries featured in the book.  The impromptu conversation between Larry and Jim was an incredible part of the event (although Larry's prepared presentation on the book also was great).

As part of the event, Larry and Jim answered a variety of  audience questions.  Included among them was a question from UT College of Law Dean Doug Blaze on the role of lawyers in management,  transactions, and entrepreneurialism.  As part of Jim Clayton's response, he noted the value of preventative lawyering--advising businesses to keep them out of trouble.  I was so glad, as a business law advisor, to hear him say that! 

Following on that, given that (a) Larry's book focuses on the factors influencing succession planning,  (b) I am teaching the Disney case to my Business Associations students this week, and (c) the Disney case is about . . . well . . . failed succession and executive compensation, I asked about management compensation in the context of succession planning at Berkshire Hathaway.  Both Larry and Jim (whose son Kevin is President and Chief Executive Officer of Clayton Homes) were clear that Warren Buffett is an exacting manager, but that he believes in paying his portfolio company managers well.  Of course, the precise nature of the compensation arrangements of those portfolio firm executives (unlike Michael Ovitz's compensation arrangements at issue in the Disney case) are not a matter of public record.  But given the markedly different contexts, I assume the arrangements are very different . . . .

As I approach discussing the Disney case once again in the classroom, I am (as always) looking for new angles, new insights to share with the class (in addition to the core fiduciary duty doctrine).  One I will share this year is Jim Clayton's advice about preventative lawyering.  What could lawyers have done to reduce the likelihood of controversy and litigation?  I have some thoughts and will develop others in the next 24 hours.  Leave your thoughts here, if you have any . . . .

November 3, 2014 in Business Associations, Books, Compensation, Corporate Governance, Corporations, Delaware, Joan Heminway | Permalink | Comments (3)

Friday, October 24, 2014

Ello and Social Enterprise

My co-blogger Stefan Padfield passed along this article from The New York Times Dealbook on the social network Ello.

Ello is a Delaware public benefit corporation. The social enterprise terminology is proving difficult, even for sophisticated authors at the New York Times Dealbook. The article calls Patagonia and Ben & Jerry’s public benefit corporations. Patagonia, however, is a California benefit corporation. I wrote about the differences between public benefit corporations and benefit corporations here. Ben & Jerry’s is a certified B corporation, but, as far as I know, Ben & Jerry’s has not yet made the legal change to convert to any of the social enterprise forms. I wrote about the differences between benefit corporations and certified B corporations here and here. Just as my co-blogger Joshua Fershee remains vigilant at pointing out the differences between LLCs and corporations, so I will remain vigilant on the social enterprise distinctions. 

Besides my nitpicking on the use of social enterprise terminology, there are a few other things I want to say about this article.     

First, Ello raised $5.5 million dollars, which is not that much money in the financial world, but puts Ello in pretty rare company in the U.S. social enterprise world. The vast majority of U.S. social enterprises are owned by a single individual or family; some social enterprises have raised outside capital, but not many. The increasing presence of outside investors in social enterprise means two main things to me: (1) the social enterprise concept is starting to gain some traction with previously skeptical investors, and (2) we may see a shareholder derivative lawsuit in the near future, which would give us all more to write about. 

Second, Ello included a clause in its charter that “forbids the company from using ads or selling user data to make money.” This provision seems a direct response to the eBay v. Newmark case. The business judgment rule provides significant protection to directors and, at least theoretically, should calm many of the fears of social entrepreneurs. But risk adverse individuals may seek additional layers of protection.

Third, Ello claims that their charter provision “basically means no investor can force us to take a really good financial deal if it forces us to take advertising.” This seems overstated.  Charters can be amended, but at least the charter puts outside investors on notice. This provision in the charter does not, however, protect against a change of heart by the founders and a selling of the company (such as in the case of Ben & Jerry’s sale to Unilever).

Fourth, this October 4, 2014 article claims that Ello is pre-revenue. The NYT Dealbook article notes that “[u]sers will eventually be able to download widgets and modifications, paying a few dollars for each purchase.” (emphasis added). Ello seems to be one of the growing number of technology companies that are being valued by number of users rather than by revenues or profits. Ello “grew from an initial 90 users on Aug. 7 to over a million now, with a waiting list of about 3 million.”

Fifth, even if traditional investors are (somewhat) warming up to social enterprises, social entrepreneurs still seem to be a bit skeptical of traditional investors. When raising money, Ello "drew the attention of the usual giants in the venture capital world. . . . But Mr. Budnitz said he instead turned to investors whom he could trust to back the start-up’s mission, including the Foundry Group, whom he came to know when he lived in the firm’s hometown, Boulder, Colo.” There are increasing sources of capital for social enterprises from investors who also have a stated social goal (See, e.g., JP Morgan’s May 2014 survey of impact investors).

Some in the academic world have wondered if social enterprise is just a fad. While I am confident that the space will and must continue to evolve, if it is a fad, it has already been a long-running one. The names and details of the statutes may change, but I see a growing interest in marrying profit and social purpose, and I think that interest is likely to continue in some form.     

Cross-posted at SocEntLaw.

October 24, 2014 in Business Associations, Corporate Finance, Corporate Governance, Corporations, Delaware, Haskell Murray, Social Enterprise | Permalink | Comments (0)

Manesh on Johnson & Ricca on Revlon

Mohsen Manesh (Oregon) has posted a new article entitled Nearing 30, Is Revlon Showing Its Age?  I have read a fair number of Mohsen’s articles and am consistently impressed.

The abstract reads:

Nearly thirty years ago, in Revlon, Inc. v. MacAndrews & Forbes Holdings, Inc., the Delaware Supreme Court famously dictated that in certain transactions involving a “sale or change in control,” the fiduciary obligation of a corporation’s board of directors is simply to “get[] the best price for the stockholders.” Applying a novel remedial perspective to this iconic doctrine, in The Dwindling of Revlon, Professor Lyman Johnson and Robert Ricca argue that Revlon is today of diminishing significance. In the three decades since, the coauthors observe, corporate law has evolved around Revlon, dramatically limiting the remedial clout of the doctrine. In this Essay, I show how two recent Delaware Chancery Court decisions — Chen v. Howard-Andersen and In re Rural Metro — underscore the expansive reach of Revlon and, therefore, the limits of Johnson and Ricca’s thesis. Instead, I suggest the dwindling of Revlon, if it is indeed dwindling, may be best observed from what is happening outside the pressed edges of corporate law, where other competing bodies of business law have emerged rejecting Revlon’s fiduciary mandate.

The article is a nice response to a thoughtful article by Lyman Johnson and Rob Ricca entitled The Dwindling of Revlon.

Both articles are highly recommended.

In addition, Stephen Bainbridge, Christopher Bruner, Franklin Gevurtz, and Vice Chancellor Travis Laster have all weighed in with interesting articles on Revlon over the last few years.

October 24, 2014 in Business Associations, Corporate Governance, Corporations, Delaware, Haskell Murray | Permalink | Comments (0)

Monday, September 29, 2014

More on LLCs as Non-Signatories of Operating Agreements . . .

In recent blog posts, two of my favorite bloggers, Keith Paul Bishop and Steve Bainbridge, have highlighted for our attention Delaware and California statutes providing (differently in each case) that an LLC and, at least in Delaware, its managers and members, are bound by the LLC's operating agreement even if they do not sign that agreement.  Bishop notes in his post that the California "RULLCA creates an odd situation in which LLCs are bound by contracts that they did not execute and to which they seemingly are not parties."  In his post Bainbridge cites to the Bishop post and another post by Francis Pileggi.  Certainly, they all have a point.  For students of contract law, the conclusion that a non-party is bound by a contract does not seem to be an obvious result . . . .

The flap in the blogosphere has its genesis in a recent Delaware Chancery Court decision, Seaport Village Ltd. v. Seaport Village Operating Company, LLC, et al. C.A. No. 8841-VCL.  The limited liability company defendant in that case raised as its only defense that it was not a party to the limited liability company agreement and therefore was not bound.  Unsurprisingly in light of applicable Delaware law, Chancellor Laster found the defense wanting as a matter of law.

This issue has more history than my brother bloggers point out, some of which is included in the brief Seaport Village opinion.  I probably don't have all the details, but set forth below is some additional background information that may be useful in thinking about the binding nature of LLC operating agreements.  Others may care to fill in any missing information by leaving comments to this post.

Continue reading

September 29, 2014 in Business Associations, Current Affairs, Delaware, Joan Heminway, LLCs, Unincorporated Entities | Permalink | Comments (2)

Fair Price/Unfair Process: The New Delaware Chancery Court Case

The Delaware Supreme Court has held that fairness review in duty of loyalty cases has two elements: fair dealing and fair price. Weinberger v. UOP, Inc., 457 A.2d 701 (1983). Fair dealing focuses on process: questions such as “when the transaction was timed, how it was initiated, structured, negotiated, disclosed to the directors, and how the approvals of the directors and the stockholders were obtained.” 457 A.2d at 711. Fair price focuses on the consideration paid or received in the transaction.

Weinberger says that the two elements of fairness must be considered together, that “the test for fairness is not a bifurcated one between fair dealing and fair price.” Id. But, of course, damages will be measured against a fair price. If that’s the case, I ask my students, does fair dealing really make any difference as long as the price is fair?

A Delaware Court of Chancery opinion, In Re Nine Systems Corporation Shareholders Litigation,  (Del. Ch. Sept. 4, 2014), recently dealt with that issue.  Vice Chancellor Noble concluded that the procedure followed by the company was unfair, so the element of fair dealing was not met. He decided that the price was fair but, considering the two elements together, decided that the burden of proving fairness had not been met.

Because of his finding that the price was fair, the Vice Chancellor rejected the plaintiffs’ claim for damages. However, he concluded that the court could require the defendants to pay certain of the plaintiffs' attorneys' fees and costs.

I now have an answer for my students. Even if the price is fair, fair dealing can still make a difference. Of course, I’m not sure anyone other than the plaintiffs’ attorneys will be terribly happy with the result.

September 29, 2014 in Business Associations, C. Steven Bradford, Corporations, Delaware | Permalink | Comments (1)

Wednesday, September 24, 2014

Judge James T. Vaughn, Jr. Nominated to Delaware Supreme Court

President Judge James T. Vaughn, Jr. of the Delaware Superior Court has been nominated to the Delaware Supreme Court by Governor Jack Markell. Judge Vaughn has served on the Delaware Superior Court for 15 years.

News.Delaware.Gov has more here.

September 24, 2014 in Current Affairs, Delaware, Haskell Murray | Permalink | Comments (0)

Monday, July 7, 2014

Delaware Public Benefit Corporation Count as of 6/30/14

For those interested, the Delaware secretary of state's office informs me that there were 145 Delaware public benefit corporations (PBCs) as of 6/30/14.

I do not recognize the vast majority of the PBCs on the list, but better known PBCs include Method Products and Plum Organics

July 7, 2014 in Business Associations, Delaware, Haskell Murray, Social Enterprise | Permalink | Comments (0)