Wednesday, October 19, 2016
Today's post continues the discussion started by Anne’s informative post regarding the law of controlling stockholders. Anne astutely notes that the MFW “enhanced ratification” framework was rendered in connection with a going private merger. Although I recognize the intuitive appeal, I wish to call into question the impact of MFW’s holding on other manners of controlling shareholder transactions.
Going private transactions differ from going concern transactions in that their successful completion wipes out the minority float. This distinction accelerates stockholders' divergent incentives and raises the possibility for minority stockholder abuse. An unscrupulous controller might structure the transaction in a manner that captures all unlocked value for later private consumption. Going private transactions allow controlling stockholders to shed the restrictions of the public market, thereby evading future retribution by minority stockholders. Policy considerations accordingly call for superior protection of minority stockholders participating in a going private transaction.
Since MFW establishes a procedure for achieving less intrusive judicial review for going private transactions, it stands to reason that this procedure should apply to all transactions involving a controlling stockholder. Indeed, without addressing the distinction between going private and going concern transactions in this context, a fairly recent Chancery Court decision has explicitly opined that the MFW framework applies to all controlling stockholder transactions (In re Ezcorp Inc. Consulting Agreement Derivative Litig., 2016 WL 301245, at *28 (Del. Ch. Jan. 25, 2016)).
In a forthcoming article at the Delaware Journal of Corporate Law, I argue that the borders of "MFW-Land" are not as clear-cut as they appear. The Delaware Supreme Court decision does not create a universally-applicable safe harbor procedure for all manner of controlling stockholder transactions. Two main arguments form the basis of this contention.
The dual tenets of doctrinal clarity and cohesion underpin the first argument. A careful reading of the MFW decision fails to detect any mention of competing precedent or a general proclamation regarding its applicability to other types of controlling stockholder transactions. MFW is clearly situated on a path of doctrinal evolution of judicial inspection of going private transactions with controlling stockholders. Canons of judicial interpretation counsel against an indirect reversal or modification of established precedent.
Additionally, the theoretical justifications for the MFW decision hold significantly less weight in the going concern context. MFW's doctrinal shift is grounded on the twin pillars representing the competency of independent directors and non-affiliated stockholders. Whatever the validity of these mechanisms in the freeze out context, the legal and financial scholarship does not validate an extension to going concern transactions. Serious flaws hamper the ability of independent directors and non-affiliated stockholders to pass meaningful judgment on going concern transactions. In the final tally, MFW does not produce an all-encompassing framework for all controlling stockholder transactions.
Wednesday, October 12, 2016
I am preparing to teach the doctrine on controlling shareholders in my corporations class tomorrow, and found the recent Delaware opinions on non-controlling shareholder cleansing votes and the BJR to be helpful illustrations of the law in this area.
In summer 2016, the Delaware Court of Chancery dismissed two post-closing actions alleging a breach of fiduciary duty where there was no controlling shareholder in the public companies, where the stockholder cleaning vote was fully informed, and applied the 2015 Corwin business judgment rule standard. The cases are City of Miami General Employees’ & Sanitation Employees’ Retirement Trust v. Comstock, C.A. No. 9980-CB, (Del. Ch. Aug. 24, 2016) (Bouchard, C.) and Larkin v. Shah, C.A. No. 10918-VCS, (Del. Ch. Aug. 25, 2016) (Slights, V.C.), both of which relied upon Corwin v. KKR Financial Holdings, LLC, 125 A.3d 304 (Del. 2015). (Fellow BLPB blogger Ann Lipton has written about Corwin here).
The Larkin case clarified that Corwin applies to duty of loyalty claims and will be subject to the deferential business judgment rule in post-closing actions challenging non-controller transactions where informed stockholders have approved the transaction. The Larkin opinion states that:
(1) when disinterested, fully informed, uncoerced stockholders approve a transaction absent a looming conflicted controller, the irrebuttable business judgment rule applies; (2) there was no looming conflicted controller in this case; and (3) the challenged merger was properly approved by disinterested, uncoerced Auspex stockholders. Under the circumstances, the business judgment rule, irrebuttable in this context, applies. ....The standard of review that guides the court’s determination of whether those duties have been violated defaults to a deferential standard, the business judgment rule, which directs the court to presume the board of directors “acted on an informed basis, in good faith and in the honest belief that the action was taken in the best interests of the company.” In circumstances where the business judgment rule applies, Delaware courts will not overturn a board’s decision unless that decision 'cannot be attributed to any rational business purpose.' This broadly permissive standard reflects Delaware’s traditional reluctance to second-guess the business judgment of disinterested fiduciaries absent some independent cause for doubt. Larkin at 21-22 (internal citations omitted).
Two-sided controller transactions (a freeze out merger where a controlling shareholder stands on both sides of the transaction) is covered by the 2014 Kahn v. M & F Worldwide Corp., 88 A.3d 635(Del. 2014) case, which I summarized in an earlier BLPB post here.
To refresh our readers, the controlling shareholder test is a stockholder who owns a majority of stock. Additionally, a stockholder may qualify as a controller if:
Under Delaware law, a stockholder owning less than half of a company’s outstanding shares may nonetheless be deemed a controller where 'the stockholder can exercise actual control over the corporation’s board.'This “actual control” test requires the court to undertake an analysis of whether, despite owning a minority of shares, the alleged controller wields “such formidable voting and managerial power that, as a practical matter, [it is] no differently situated than if [it] had majority voting control.'A controlling stockholder can exist as a sole actor or a control block of “shareholders, each of whom individually cannot exert control over the corporation . . . [but who] are connected in some legally significant way—e.g., by contract, common ownership agreement, or other arrangement—to work together toward a shared goal.' Larkin at 33-34 (internal citations omitted).
Excellent commentary on theLarkin and Comstock cases and their practical implications can be found on the Harvard Law School Forum on Corporate Governance and Financial Regulation, available here.
Tuesday, September 6, 2016
Private Ordering in the Uncorporation: Modified and Eliminated Fiduciary Duties Are Often the Same Thing
What does it mean to opt out of fiduciary duties? In follow-up to my co-blogger Joan Heminway's post, Limited Partnership Law: Should Tennessee Follow Delaware's Lead On Fiduciary Duty Private Ordering?, I will go a step further and say all states should follow Delaware's lead on private ordering for non-publicly traded unincorporated business associations.
Here's why: At formation, I think all duties between promoters of an unincorporated business association (i.e., not a corporation) are always, to some degree, defined at formation. This is different than the majority of other agency relationships where the expectations of the relationship are more ingrained and less negotiated (think employee-employer relationship).
As such, I'd make fiduciary duties a fundamental right by statute that can be dropped (expressly) by those forming the entity. I'd put an additional limit on the ability to drop fiduciary duties: the duties can only be dropped after formation if expressly stated in formation documents (or agreed unanimously later). That is, if you didn't opt out at formation, tell all those who could potentially join the entity how you can change fiduciary duties later. This helps limit some (though not all) freeze-out options, and I think it would encourage investors to check the entity documents closely (as they should).
At formation, the concerns we might have of, for example, an employee without fiduciary duties, are not the same as they are for co-venturers. Those starting an entity have long negotiated what is a breach of the duty of loyalty, for example. In contrast, I think fiduciary duties in most employer-employee (and similar) relationships reflect the majoritarian default and they facilitate the relationship existing at all. For LLCs and partnership entities, I think that's less clear. Entity formation is relatively rare compared to how often we enter other agency relationships, and they almost always involve significant negotiation (if not planning). And if they don't, the rules we expect traditionally should be the default. But where the parties talk about it, and they usually do, allowing a more robust sense of freedom of contract has value.
Even in Delaware, where one can negotiate out of fiduciary duties, there remains the duty of good faith and fair dealing. I think of that as meaning that the parties still have a right to the essence of the contract. That is, the contract has to mean something. It has to have had a purpose and potential value at formation, and no party can eliminate that. But, the parties only have a right to what was bargained for. As such, what we might traditionally consider a breach of the duty of loyalty could also breach the duty of good faith and fair dealing, but a traditional breach of the duty of loyalty might not be sufficient to find liability where there is expressly no duty of loyalty. Instead, the act must so contradict the purpose of the contract that it rises to the level of a breach the duty of good faith and fair dealing.
Part of the reason I support this option is that I think case law has already validated it, but in such an inartful manner that it confuses existing doctrine. See, e.g., McConnell v. Hunt Sports Enterprises, 132 Ohio App. 3d 657, 725 N.E.2d 1193 (Ct. App. 1999) (“An LLC, like a partnership, involves a fiduciary relationship. Normally, the presence of such a relationship would preclude direct competition between members of the company. However, here we have an operating agreement that by its very terms allows members to compete with the business of the company.”).
In closing, I will note that I am all for express provisions that require investors to pay attention at the outset. I don't believe in helping cheaters hide the ball. I just think law that encourages investors and others joining new ventures to pay attention is useful and will provide long-term value to entities. I don't think that eliminated fiduciary duties at formation raise any more of a risk than we already have with limited or modified fiduciary duties at formation. With the more limited protections described above, freedom of contract should reign.
Wednesday, August 17, 2016
If it is true that “a good thing cannot last forever,” the recent turn of events concerning appraisal arbitrage in Delaware may be a proof point. A line of cases coming out of the Delaware Court of Chancery, namely In re Appraisal of Transkaryotic Therapies, Inc., No. CIV.A. 1554-CC (Del. Ch. May 2, 2007), In re Ancestry.Com, Inc., No. CV 8173-VCG (Del. Ch. Jan. 5, 2015), and Merion Capital LP v. BMC Software, Inc., No. CV 8900-VCG (Del. Ch. Jan. 5, 2015), have made one point clear: courts impose no affirmative evidence that each specific share of stock was not voted in favor of the merger—a “share-tracing” requirement. Despite this “green light” for hedge funds engaging in appraisal arbitrage, the latest case law and legislation identify some new limitations.
What Is Appraisal Arbitrage?
Under § 262 of the Delaware General Corporation Law (DGCL), a shareholder in a corporation (usually privately-held) that disagrees with a proposed plan of merger can seek appraisal from the Court of Chancery for the fair value of their shares after approval of the merger by a majority of shareholders. The appraisal-seeking shareholder, however, must not have voted in favor of the merger. Section 262, nevertheless, has been used mainly by hedge funds in a popular practice called appraisal arbitrage, the purchasing of shares in a corporation after announcement of a merger for the sole purpose of bringing an appraisal suit against the corporation. Investors do this in hopes that the court determines a fair value of the shares that is a higher price than the merger price for shares.
In Using the Absurdity Principle & Other Strategies Against Appraisal Arbitrage by Hedge Funds, I outline how this practice is problematic for merging corporations. Not only can appraisal demands lead to 200–300% premiums for investors, assets in leveraged buyouts already tied up in financing the merger create an even heavier strain on liquidating assets for cash to fund appraisal demands. Additionally, if such restraints are too burdensome due to an unusually high demand of appraisal by arbitrageurs seeking investment returns, the merger can be completely terminated under “appraisal conditions”—a contractual countermeasure giving potential buyers a way out of the merger if a threshold percentage of shares seeking appraisal rights is exceeded. The article also identifies some creative solutions that can be effected by the judiciary or parties to and affected by a merger in absence of judicial and legislative action, and it evaluates the consequences of unobstructed appraisal arbitrage.
The Issue Is the “Fungible Bulk” of Modern Trading Practices
In the leading case, Transkaryotic, counsel for a defending corporation argued that compliance with § 262 required shareholders seeking appraisal prove that each of its specific shares was not voted in favor of the merger. The court pushed back against this share-tracing requirement and held that a plain language interpretation of § 262 requires no showing that specific shares were not voted in favor of the merger, but only requires that the current holder did not vote the shares in favor of the merger. The court noted that even if it imposed such a requirement, neither party could meet it because of the way modern trading practices occur.
August 17, 2016 in Anne Tucker, Business Associations, Case Law, Corporate Finance, Corporate Governance, Corporations, Delaware, Financial Markets, Private Equity, Shareholders | Permalink | Comments (0)
Wednesday, July 27, 2016
Just in case you haven't gotten the message yet: Delaware law means fiduciary duty freedom of contract for alternative entities. In May 2016, the Delaware Chancery Court upheld a waiver of fiduciary duties in a master limited partnership. In Employees Retirement System of the City of St. Louis v. TC Pipelines GP, Inc., Vice Chancellor Glasscock upheld challenges to an interested transaction (sale of a pipeline asset to an affiliated entity) that was reviewed, according to the partnership agreement, by a special committee and found to be fair and reasonable. The waiver has been described as "ironclad" to give you a sense of how straight forward this decision was. No close call here.
Vice Chancellor Glasscock's letter opinion starts:
Delaware alternative entity law is explicitly contractual;1 it allows parties to eschew a corporate-style suite of fiduciary duties and rights, and instead to provide for modified versions of such duties and rights—or none at all—by contract. This custom approach can be value enhancing, but only if the parties are held to their bargain. Where equity holders in such entities have provided for such a custom menu of rights and duties by unambiguous contract language, that language must control judicial review of entity transactions, subject only to the cautious application of the implied covenant of good faith and fair dealing. Such is the case in the instant matter, which involves a master limited partnership (“MLP”) created with interested transactions involving the general partner as part of its business model.....
The Defendants point out that the [transaction] was approved by a special committee (the “Conflicts Committee”), which approval, in accordance with the partnership agreement, creates a conclusive presumption that the transaction is fair and reasonable to the Partnership. I find that the Conflicts Committee’s approval, in these circumstances, precludes judicial scrutiny of the substance of the transaction and grant the Defendants’ Motion.
Importantly, the contractual safe harbor for interested transactions established a process which, if followed, created a fair and reasonable transaction outside of judicial scrutiny and without recourse by the other partners. The court found that the partnership agreement precluded a good faith analysis of the Conflicts Committee's review and limited the court's review purely to matters of process.
The relevant portions of the Special Approval provision, importantly, are silent as to good faith.....According to the contractual language, the Special Approval of a duly constituted and fully informed Conflicts Committee is conclusive evidence that such transaction is fair and reasonable, and such approval is, therefore, preclusive of further judicial review. The Plaintiff does not allege that the Conflicts Committee was not duly constituted—that is, directors who are neither security holders nor employees or officers of the General Partner or its affiliates. Nor does the Plaintiff allege that the Conflicts Committee was not fully informed. Thus, the approval here is conclusive that the [transaction] is “fair and reasonable” to TCP. According to the explicit language of the LPA, when a conflicted transaction is deemed “fair and reasonable” by the terms of the agreement, such conflicted transaction is incapable of breaching the LPA.
Get the message? LOUD and CLEAR!
The opinion contains more analysis and excerpts of the relevant portions of partnership agreement. Look for an excerpt on this case in my ChartaCourse (electronic platform) Business Organizations casebook.
Tuesday, July 26, 2016
Anyone who reads this blog knows that I have issues with how people mess up the distinction between LLCs (limited liability companies) and corporations. In some instances, it is a subtle, likely careless, mistake. Other cases seem to be trolling me. Today, I present you such a case: Sky Cable, LLC v. Coley, 2016 WL 3926492 (W.D.Va., July 18, 2016). H/T: Jay D. Adkisson. The case describes the proceedings as follows:
DIRECTV asks the court to reverse-pierce the corporate veil and declare that Randy Coley is the alter ego of his three limited liability companies, such that the assets held by those LLCs are subject to the judgment in this case.
Okay, so claiming to pierce the "corporate veil" of an LLC is wrong (it doesn't have a "corporate" anything), but it's also exceedingly common for lawyers and courts to make such an assertion. This case takes the improper designation to the next level.
First, the court describes the LLCs in questios as "the Corporate Entities." It then goes on to discuss "Coley's limited liability companies." Ugh. The court further relates, "DIRECTV stated that in a forthcoming motion, it would ask the court to reverse-pierce the corporate veil given Coley's abuse of the corporate form." No such form, but perhaps we can now blame DIRECTV's counsel, in part, for this hot mess.
Here's the court's Legal Framework:
Generally, corporations are recognized as entities that are separate and distinct from their officers and stockholders. [Author's note: THERE ARE NO SHAREHOLDERS IN LLCS!] "But this concept of separate entity is merely a legal theory, 'introduced for purposes of convenience and to subserve the ends of justice,' and the courts 'decline to recognize [it] whenever recognition of the corporate form would extend the principle of incorporation "beyond its legitimate purposes and [would] produce injustices or inequitable consequences.' "" DeWitt Truck Brokers, Inc. v. W. Ray Flemming Fruit Co., 540 F.2d 681, 683 (4th Cir. 1976) (citations omitted). When appropriate, and " 'in furtherance of the ends of justice,' " a court may pierce the corporate veil and treat the corporation and its shareholders as one, id. (quoting 18 Am. Jur. 2d at 559), if it finds a corporation and its shareholders have misused or disregarded the corporate form, United States v. Kolon Indus., Inc., 926 F. Supp. 2d 794, 815 (E.D. Va. 2013). This is often referred to as an "alter ego theory."
The court continues: "Delaware courts take the corporate form and corporate formalities very seriously.... " Case Fin., Inc. v. Alden, No. CIV. A. 1184-VCP, 2009 WL 2581873, at *4 (Del. Ch. Aug. 21, 2009)." The opinion then states that veil piercing concepts"apply equally to limited liability companies which, like corporations, have a legal existence separate and distinct from its members." The concept may, but LLCs do not have to follow the same formalities as corporations to maintain separate existence. Even if veil piercing were appropriate here, the entire case continues to misstate the law of veil piercing LLCs. Note: Delaware courts do hold some blame here: Westmeyer v. Flynn, 382 Ill. App. 3d 952, 960, 889 N.E.2d 671, 678 (2008) ("[U]nder Delaware law, just as with a corporation, the corporate veil of an LLC may be pierced, where appropriate.").
Based on the opinion, it does seems as though the defendant here was being shady, at best, and perhaps outright fraudulent. I don't suggest that, based on the facts presented, the defendant shouldn't be held accountable for his debts. Still, in addition to the misstatements of the law, I am not sure veil piercing was necessary. As the court notes, "veil piercing is an equitable remedy and an extraordinary one, exercised only in exceptional circumstances "when 'necessary to promote justice.'" It seems to me, then, the court (and the plaintiff) should discuss other remedies first, relying only on veil piercing where "necessary."
As such, I'd like to see a discussion of fraudulent or improper transfer before veil piercing -- did the defendant improperly move assets that should have been available to the plaintiff into an entity? Before veil piercing three entities, it seems to me the court should determine what should have been available to the plaintiff -- if the answer is "nothing" then no amount of shady behavior should support veil piercing. If there should be assets, then the question should still be "which ones?" If the answer is all of the assets in all of then entities, then okay. But if the court is veil piercing three entities merely to ensure adequate recovery, that's an overreach, it seems to me. In addition, how about reviewing if there was actual fraud in how the defendant acted? That, too, could support recovery without the extraordinary veil piercing remedy.
Ultimately, it's possible the court got the outcome right here. But it clearly got the law wrong. A lot.
Monday, July 25, 2016
In a recent decision of the Tennessee Supreme Court, Keller v. Estate of Edward Stephen McRedmond, Tennessee adopted Delaware's direct-versus-derivative litigation analysis from Tooley v. Donaldson, Lufkin, & Jenrette, Inc., 845 A.2d 1031 (Del. 2004), displacing a previously applicable test (that from Hadden v. City of Gatlinburg, 746 S.W.2d 687 (Tenn. 1988)). Although this is certainly significant, I also find the case interesting as an example of the way that a court treats different types of claims that can arise in typical corporate governance controversies (especially in small family and other closely held businesses). This post covers both matters briefly.
The Keller case involves a family business eventually organized as a for-profit corporation under Tennessee law ("MBI"). As is so often the case, after the children take over the business, a schism develops in the family that results in a deadlock under a pre-existing shareholders' agreement. A court-ordered dissolution follows, and after a bidding process in which each warring side of the family bids, the trustee contracts to sell the assets of MBI to members of one of the two family factions as the higher bidder. These acquiring family members organize their own corporation to hold the transferred MBI assets ("New MBI") and assign their rights under the MBI asset purchase agreement to New MBI
Prior to the closing, the losing bidder family member, Louie, then an officer and director of MBI who ran part of its business (its grease business), solicited customers and employees, starved the MBI grease business, diverted business opportunities from MBI's grease business to a corporation he already had established (on the MBI property) to compete with MBI in that business sector, and engaged in other behavior disloyal to MBI. Louie's actions were alleged to have contravened a court order enforcing covenants in the MBI asset purchase agreement. They also were allegedly disloyal and constituted a breach of his fiduciary duty of loyalty to MBI. Finally, they constituted an alleged interference with New MBI's business relations.
Friday, July 15, 2016
Robert Esposito (Drinker Biddle) passed along his firm's interesting report on early crowdfunding offerings. The report is available here. Be sure to download the firm level detail spreadsheet available via the data download on the top right of the page.
The report shows that social enterprise and breweries/distilleries account for outsized portions of the early offerings. A group of us (including co-blogger Joan Heminway) predicted, at the University of Colorado's business school in July 2013, that social entrepreneurs would gravitate to equity crowdfunding. Separately, in my social enterprise law seminar, I was surprised by how many students presented on breweries that were social enterprises, and looking at this list it appears that there is at least one company (Hawaiian Ola Brewing Corporation - a Certified B Corporation) that falls into both the social enterprise and brewery categories highlighted below. It may be that both areas appeal to younger entrepreneurs who may also be eager to try this new form of capital raising.
Go read the entire report, but I provide a teaser quote below the dotted line with some emphasis added.
In general. As of June 30, 2016, 50 companies have filed a Form C with the SEC to offer securities under the Regulation Crowdfunding exemption. Minimum target offering amounts range from $20,000 to $500,000 per offering, with a median of $55,000. All but one of these issuers, however, have disclosed that they will accept offers in excess of the target amount, including 27 issuers that say they will accept investments at or near the maximum permitted offering amount of $1,000,000. In contrast, 18 of the first 50 issuers elected to cap their offering at just $100,000, with the remainder setting an offering cap of between $200,000 and $500,000. In the aggregate, if this first wave of retail crowdfundings is successful, 50 small companies will raise an aggregate of $6 to $30 million in new capital to fund their businesses.
While announced offering durations range from 21 days to one year, the median period that issuers say they will keep their offerings open is just under six months, with about half electing an offering duration between 166 and 182 days.
Eighteen different jurisdictions of incorporation are represented among the first 50 issuers; however, nearly half of the initial filers (24) are Delaware entities. Early data shows that issuers tend to be early-stage startups, with a median issuer age of just 354 days. Nevertheless, nine of the issuers were more than five years old, and the oldest was incorporated in 2003. . . .
While a total of 12 funding portals have registered with FINRA to date, the early mover Wefunder portal hosts more than half (26) of the first 50 offerings. The StartEngine portal has secured eight offerings, with the remainder split among other portals, including SeedInvest, Next Seed, Flashfunders, and Venture.co.
- Social Enterprises. According to the Global Entrepreneurship Monitor’s Special Topic Report on Social Entrepreneurship, social enterprises account for only 5.7 percent of entrepreneurial activity in the United States. However, early crowdfunding data shows that social enterprises are strongly represented among crowdfunding issuers. Seven issuers, representing 14 percent of the first 50 offerings, are either registered as benefit corporations or benefit LLCs, or are certified by B Lab as B Corps, and at least an additional nine issuers operate within traditional corporate forms with strong social and/or environmental missions. Combined, these issuers represent 32 percent of the first 50 offerings.
- Raise a Glass. Craft breweries, distilleries, and licensed establishments are also disproportionately represented among the first 50 issuers. Eight issuers, representing 16 percent of the first 50 offerings, fall into this category, including 2 distilleries, 2 craft breweries, 2 bars, as well as a frozen alcohol producer and a producer of ginger liqueur.
Friday, July 8, 2016
Like Anne and Joan, I enjoyed the Berle Symposium and found it incredibly valuable. As they have mentioned, former Chancellor Chandler's presentation was definitely a highlight, and it was affirming to hear Delaware law described as I understand it, if much more eloquently expressed than I have managed. Former Chancellor Chandler appeared to make clear that directors of Delaware firms could be at risk if they admit to taking an action that is not aimed at (eventually) meeting the short or long-term financial interests of shareholders.
Former Chancellor Chandler's description of Delaware law, both in the symposium and in his eBay case, coupled with the law review writings of Delaware Supreme Court Chief Justice Leo Strine, confirm, in my mind, that benefit corporations could be useful, at least in Delaware, for entrepreneurs who want to admit pursing strategies that are not aimed at benefiting shareholders in the short or long run. For example, I think some companies, like Patagonia, make decisions that benefit the environment, even though the directors may honestly believe that financial costs will far exceed financial benefits, even in the long-term.
Interestingly, however, much of what I heard from the B Lab representatives at the symposium was about how benefit corporations can do just as well, if not better, than traditional corporations from a financial perspective. This obviously poses an empirical question that we may get better answers to in the coming years. But if you can "do well by doing good" then then entrepreneurs, even under Delaware law, seem likely to avoid legal problems given the protection of the business judgment rule and the argument that financial benefits will eventually follow from their society-focused actions.
The benefitcorp.net website has a list of reasons to become a benefit corporation, which are:
Reduced Director Liability
Expanded Stockholder Rights
A Reputation For Leadership
An Advantage in Attracting Talent
Increased Access to Private Investment Capital
Increased Attractiveness to Retail Investors and Mission Protection as a Publicly Traded Company
I am a bit surprised that more of these reasons are not focused on societal and environmental benefit (and am not sure why mission protection is limited to publicly traded companies, especially when there are no stand-alone publicly traded benefit corporations today -- though there will likely soon be some soon.) I question whether all of these benefits are true. For example, I have heard mixed things about benefit corporations from investors, and the liability issue is completely untested. But if all of these things are true, and social entrepreneurs do get better access to capital and an advantage attracting employees, etc., then I think the benefit corporation form is less necessary as a legal matter. Maybe the thought is that benefit corporations have expressive value or that they provide an extra layer of protection. But, as a legal matter, if you can justify your social actions by pointing to potential long-term financial benefits, you do not really need a new form, even in Delaware (and, of course, many other states are even more permissive with social actions). Maybe benefit corporation proponents see the real value in the M&A context when facing Unocal/Revlon, but Page & Katz showed ways around those issues, especially if focused on long-term value. Entrepreneurs could also incorporate outside of Delaware, in a state that has expressly rejected Revlon.
Personally, while it is possible for some firms to do well by doing good, I think social entrepreneurs will often be openly sacrificing financial returns---they will be doing good through purposeful financial sacrifice. As such, an benefit corporation option, at least in states like Delaware.
There was quite a lot of good discussion at the Berle Symposium, and I may have more to write about it in later posts.
Monday, July 4, 2016
Anne Tucker (who, together with Haskell Murray, me, and many others, attended the 8th Annual Berle Symposium in Seattle a week ago) penned an excellent post last week on the importance of shareholder value under Delaware law. Her post covers important outtakes from the symposium presentation given by former Delaware Chancellor William (Bill) Chandler and Elizabeth Hecker, both lawyers in the Wilmington, Delaware office of Wilson Sonsini Goodrich & Rosati. In the post, Anne accurately and succinctly summarizes a key take-away from the former Chancellor's remarks:
[A] Delaware court will invalidate a board of directors' other serving actions only if they are in conflict with shareholder value, but never when it is complimentary. And there is a expanding appreciation of when "other interests" are seen as complimentary to, and not in competition with, shareholder value maximization.
Specifically, as Anne's summary indicates, Chancellor Chandler stated his view that a Delaware corporate board must place shareholder financial wealth (whether in the short term or the long term) ahead of any other value in its decision making. This is hardly a surprise to anyone who follows Delaware corporate law judicial opinions (although the former Chancellor's statement of the law was among the clearest and most definite I have heard). After all, Chancellor Chandler's opinion in the eBay case is widely cited for this proposition.
The Berle symposium focused on benefit corporations this year, and my draft paper for the symposium highlights the central importance of a corporation's charter-based corporate purpose in that type of firm. So, I asked the former Chancellor for his personal view on how a Delaware court might handle a specific type of corporate purpose clause in a non-benefit-corporation Delaware corporate law context. The specific corporate purpose clause I had in mind is one that expresses a clear "second bottom line" (other than the promotion of shareholder value) and clearly indicates that neither bottom line is to be given constant or presumed precedence over the other in decisions made by the board of directors or the corporate officers.
Wednesday, June 29, 2016
Former Delaware Chancellor William (Bill) Chandler and Elizabeth Hecker, a fellow lawyer at Wilson Sonsini Goodrich & Rosati presented on benefit corporations and Delaware law at the Berle VIII conference. I cannot fully communicate how exciting it was to hear a distillation of Delaware law generally and several opinions specifically from a judge involved in the cases. In short: it was thrilling.
Former Chancellor Chandler discussed the Delaware case law interpretation of shareholder value and its place in analyzing corporate transactions. While these aren't words that he used, I have been thinking a lot about this tension as a question of complimenting or competing. The simple message was that the "inc." behind corporate names means something. But the question, is what does that mean? It signals, among other things, that a Delaware court will invalidate a board of directors' other serving actions only if they are in conflict with shareholder value, but never when it is complimentary. And there is a expanding appreciation of when "other interests" are seen as complimentary to, and not in competition with, shareholder value maximization.
Former Chancellor Chandler reminded us that shareholder value can include long term interests as the Delaware Chancery Court concluded in February 2011 in the Airgas case where Delaware upheld a board's defensive actions taken, in part, on the belief that the offer didn't include the full long-term value. The Airgas opinion is available here. The original $5.9B bid for Airgas, which the BOD said, despite an informed shareholder vote in its favor, didn't capture the full value of the company. The market validated Airgas' board's position and the Delaware court's adoption of that view. Airgas completed its merger with Air Liquide in May, 2016 for $10.3B.
Thursday, June 16, 2016
8th Annual Berle Symposium - Benefit Corporations and the Firm Commitment Universe - June 27-28, 2016 - Seattle, WA
Three Business Law Prof Blog editors (myself included) are presenting at the upcoming Berle Symposium on June 27-28 in Seattle.
Colin Mayer (Oxford) is the keynote speaker, and I look forward to hearing him present again. I blogged on his book Firm Commitment after I heard him speak at Vanderbilt a few of years ago. The presenters also include former Chancellor Bill Chandler of the Delaware Court of Chancery. Given that Chancellor Chandler's eBay v. Newmark decision is heavily cited in the benefit corporation debates, it will be quite valuable to have him among the contributors. The author of the Model Benefit Corporation Legislation, Bill Clark, will also be presenting; I have been at a number of conferences with Bill Clark and always appreciate his thoughts from the front lines. Finally, the list is packed with professors I know and admire, or have read their work and am looking forward to meeting.
More information about the conference is available here.
June 16, 2016 in Anne Tucker, Business Associations, Conferences, Corporate Governance, Corporations, CSR, Delaware, Financial Markets, Haskell Murray, Joan Heminway, Law School, Social Enterprise | Permalink | Comments (0)
Wednesday, June 8, 2016
If you've been slamming away on a writing deadline then perhaps you've missed the opportunity (like me) to dive into the recent Chancery Court of Delaware Dell appraisal rights opinion (downloadable here). Have no fear, your summary is here.
Vice Chancellor Laster valued Dell’s common stock at $17.62 per share, reflecting a 28% premium above the $13.75 merger price that was paid to Dell shareholders in October 2014 in a going private transaction lead by company-founder Michael Dell. Dell's going private transaction was opposed by Carl Icahn and this juicy, contentious transaction has its own required reading list. When conceding defeat, Carl Icahn sent the following letter to Dell Shareholders:
New York, New York, September 9, 2013
Dear Fellow Dell Inc. Stockholders:
I continue to believe that the price being paid by Michael Dell/Silver Lake to purchase our company greatly undervalues it, among other things, because:
1. Dell is paying a price approximately 70% below its ten-year high of $42.38; and
2. The bid freezes stockholders out of any possibility of realizing Dell’s great potential.
Fast forward nearly 3 years later and it seems Vice Chancellor Laster agrees. VC Laster reached his undervaluation decision despite no finding of significant fault with the company’s directors' conduct or a competing bidder. Instead, VC Laster focused on the fall in the company’s stock price, and a failure to determine the intrinsic value of Dell before negotiating the buyout. The business press and law blogs have exploded with articles, a few of which are highlighted below:
- For a good summary of the ruling see this succinct Delaware Chancery Court blog post and Andrew Ross Sorkin's NY Times article.
- For a good discussion of how appraisal remedies were applied in Dell, see Steven Davidoff Solomon's NY Times article here.
- For a discussion of the increase in shareholder appraisal actions and contributing factors (arbitrage) and the future of appraisal rights, see this ABA article.
Saturday, May 28, 2016
A former law student of mine who practices in Delaware just alerted me to this Delaware Online article.
The article describes the proposed bill as follows:
House Bill 371 would restrict the number of corporate shareholders who can petition the court for a stock appraisal to only those who own $1 million or more of a company's stock or 1 percent of the outstanding shares, depending on which is less. Currently, any shareholder can ask the court to appraise their shares. Those motions are typically filed when a company is the target of an all-cash acquisition and the shareholder wants to ensure the buyer is paying a fair price for the stock. (emphasis added)
Corporate governance expert Charles Elson is quoted as saying:
. . . he understands the argument on both sides. "Anytime you attempt to restrict the rights of a smaller shareholder, it is going to be controversial whether or not the approach is warranted"
The article cites co-authored work by my Nashville neighbor, Randall Thomas (Vanderbilt Law):
A study published earlier this month by four noted corporate law professors, including Wei Jang of Columbia Business School and Randall S. Thomas of Vanderbilt Law School, found that hedge funds have accounted for nearly 75 percent of the amount awarded in all appraisal actions over the last few years. The study also found that 32 percent of the cases involved stakes below $1 million or 1 percent of a company's stock.
Go read the entire article.
Wednesday, May 4, 2016
In follow up to my post yesterday, my trusted and valued co-blogger Joan Heminway asked a good question (as usual) based one of my comments. My response became long enough that I thought it warranted a follow-up post (and it needed formatting). Joan commented:
you say: "there should be no problem if, for example, Delaware corporate law did not allow a for-profit entity to exercise religion for the sole sake of religion. I think that is the case right now: that’s not a proper corporate purpose under my read of existing law." Are you implying that a corporate purpose of that kind for a for-profit corporation organized in Delaware would be unlawful? Can you explain?
My response: I am suggesting exactly that, though I concede one might need a complaining shareholder first. My read of eBay, and Chief Justice Strine’s musing on the subject, suggest that an entity that is run for purposes of religion (not shareholder wealth maximization) first and foremost, is an improper use of the Delaware corporate form. (“I simply indicate that the corporate law requires directors, as a matter of their duty of loyalty, to pursue a good faith strategy to maximize profits for the stockholders.”) Chancellor Chandler explained in eBay:
The corporate form in which craigslist 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.
I think this definition of philanthropic easily includes religious ends (or should).
Chancellor Chandler continued:
Jim and Craig opted to form craigslist, Inc. as a for-profit Delaware corporation and voluntarily accepted millions of dollars from eBay as part of a transaction whereby eBay became a stockholder. Having chosen a for-profit corporate form, the craigslist 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.
I don’t see how this should play any differently if it applied to religion. Consider, for example, this possible spin:
Jane and Carrie opted to form Religion, Inc., as a for-profit Delaware corporation and voluntarily accepted millions of dollars from BigCo as part of a transaction whereby BigCo became a stockholder. Having chosen a for-profit corporate form, the Religion 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.
Further to the point, Chancellor Chandler added:
I cannot accept as valid . . . a corporate policy that specifically, clearly, and admittedly seeks not to maximize the economic value of a for-profit Delaware corporation for the benefit of its stockholders—no matter whether those stockholders are individuals of modest means or a corporate titan of online commerce.
Thus, a for-profit business can be religious in nature—e.g., make religious books or products or sponsor religious seminars—but as a Delaware corporation, the purpose of the entity must be to “promote the value of the corporation for the benefit of its stockholders.”
This is the potential problem with the Hobby Lobby case as to Delaware law. There, the companies had a lot to lose:
If they and their companies refuse to provide contraceptive coverage, they face severe economic consequences: about $475 million per year for Hobby Lobby, $33 million per year for Conestoga, and $15 million per year for Mardel. And if they drop coverage altogether, they could face penalties of roughly $26 million for Hobby Lobby, $1.8 million for Conestoga, and $800,000 for Mardel.
These losses were justified in that case as being necessary to exercise religion, and not to further a corporate purpose. Of course, they had to make that claim, because otherwise they couldn’t get the benefit of RFRA, which requires demonstrating “an honest conviction,” which could be problematic if the reason was couched in business terms, and not religious ones.
Incidentally, I think the business judgment rule should probably protect this decision, anyway, but I don’t know that Delaware law would support that view. In fact, it shouldn't based in recent case law, and I think plainly eBay says no on that one. The Supreme Court says RFRA protects the right to pursue religious ends. It doesn't mean Delaware law does. (Note: Hobby Lobby is not a Delaware entity, so the rules are admittedly different.)
Thus, my fix seek to balance these competing possible outcomes. Tell shareholders your plan, and they can’t question it later, even if that plan costs the company $475 million in losses. Where the law has evolved, I don't think it's fair to suggest it was part of the bargain for all companies, thought maybe investors in Hobby Lobby did know. But it doesn't matter. I thought craigslist’s long-standing business plan was sufficient notice, too. Chancellor Chandler disagreed.
Tuesday, April 12, 2016
There are those I-need-to-pinch-myself moments in life that come along every once in a while. I was lucky enough to have one last week. I was invited to attend a conference and comment on two interesting draft papers written by two law faculty colleagues whose work I have long admired and who are lovely people. And the location was Miami Beach. Does it get any better than that for a law professor who likes the beach? I think not.
The event was the annual conference for the Institute for Law and Economic Policy (ILEP). The conference theme was "Vindicating Virtuous Claims." The papers will be published in the Duke Law Journal, which co-sponsored the program.
I will save details on the papers for later (when the papers are finalized). But I will briefly describe each here. The first paper on which I commented, written by Rutheford B ("Biff") Campbell (University of Kentucky College of Law), argues for federal preemption of state securities regulation governing the offer and sale of securities, since federal preemption would be more efficient. The second paper, written by James D. ("Jim") Cox (Duke University School of Law, who was honored at the event and received the most amazing tribute from his Dean, David Levi, at the closing dinner), argues for attaching more value to the normative effects of judicial decisions arising out of indeterminate doctrine (using materiality and the business judgment rule as core examples). I know that last part is a mouthful, but read it again, and I think you'll get it . . . .
Both papers were intellectually stimulating, and both scholars were quite engaging in their presentations. The other invited commentators were interesting and thought-provoking. And the day was filled overall with other interesting academic paper panels and a lively keynote lunch speaker. Together with the panel discussion on the evolution of Rule 23 and dinner the night before, it was an action-packed, invigorating conference!
. . . And then there was the time I spent after the conference recollecting myself (and writing student bar recommendation letters). The weather was cooperative (downright sunny and warm), and the surroundings at the hotel (food, accommodations, etc.) were fabulous. My Facebook friends got tired of my colorful photos and happy posts, especially since many of those folks were in locales further North and to the East in which it was cold and snowing on Saturday or Sunday.
So, I am taking this opportunity to note and celebrate my good fortune on, and to offer thanks for, being invited to the ILEP conference to comment on the forthcoming scholarly work of two great business law colleagues. I met some fascinating, pleasant new people among the conference constituents (from the bench, bar, and academy). And I enjoyed time on a chaise lounge. [sigh] But now, it's back to the reality of the final few weeks of the semester. I wish everyone the best in pushing through.
Tuesday, March 15, 2016
In my Energy Business: Law & Strategy course, I use Larry A. DiMatteo's article, Strategic Contracting: Contract Law as a Source of Competitive Advantage, 47 Am. Bus. L.J. 727 (2010). I have been using the article in the class since 2012 (this is the third time I have taught it), and I think it does a great job of providing a theoretical backdrop for practical application. I teach the article in combination with a one-sided proposed Memorandum of Understanding to help students think about the contracting process and and the long-term implications of what might seem like a small-scale negotiation. I highly recommend the piece.
In reading the article this time around, though, I was struck by how differently the piece treats limited liability companies (LLCs) and corporations and the way concerns about opportunistic behavior are raised in the context of the latter. In one portion of the article, DiMatteo notes:
Corporate strategy that fails to take account of the strategic use of law is likely to waste opportunities for competitive advantages. A corporate legal strategy can be used to gain competitive advantages both internally and externally.
I wholeheartedly agree, and this is part of the reason I teach my course. Although I don't think this is true of just "corporate" strategy, because the same applies to other entities, such as educational institutions, environmental organizations, LLCs, and even governments. Regular readers will not be surprised that I would choose to start the sentence "entity strategy" instead of "corporate strategy, " but his point is still well taken.
Later in the piece, Prof. DiMatteo takes the following position with regard to LLCs:
The freedom of contract paradigm that underlies LLCs allows for broad flexibility in strategically drafting the operating agreement. I will make a distinction here between proper and improper strategic drafting, because a distinction based on legality is insufficient. That is, improper terms may be perfectly legal under some states’ LLC statutes. The argument here is that the freedom of contract construct can lead to contractual abuse, albeit a legally sanctioned abuse. For example, a combination of clauses could be inserted into the operating agreement that strips nonmanager members of all power and protections, such as removal of fiduciary duties relating to the managing member, an indemnification clause to protect the managing member from liability for malfeasance, and a clause providing that the nonmember managers have no right to withdraw or to seek dissolution. These types of provisions may be legal under some statutory schemes, but strict enforcement of these clauses by the managing member would be abusive.
I fail to see why strategic use of law in this context is more problematic than the strategic use of law in other contexts. I do understand and validate concerns about on-going expectations of fiduciary protections related to entities, and that is why, as I have suggested previously, that the lack of fiduciary duties and post-formation changes to fiduciary duties (especially loyalty) should include disclosure and perhaps other structural protections. (I am less concerned about those forming the entity agreeing to limit or eliminate fiduciary duties because they are agreeing to the option at formation when they can object or walk away.) Still, I don't see any reason that freedom of contract in LLCs is fundamentally different from freedom of contract in any other setting, at least as along as you account for a potential knowledge gap about fiduciary duties. In contrast, I liked how Larry Ribstein framed the question of possible promoter liability for LLCs in New York, where he argued that one could make a complaint that "alleged a misrepresentation which would be actionable without implying a fiduciary duty."
I do agree with Prof. DiMatteo when he says, "In the end, contracts can be a strategic tool in obtaining a competitive advantage, or they can be a tool to support collaboration by minimizing the opportunities for advantage taking." Freedom of contract in LLC formation embraces both of these concepts, too. I just think that those forming the entity should be the ones to determine which path they will take.
Friday, February 19, 2016
I haven't seen his name on any of the short lists to replace Justice Scalia, but I would love to see the current Chief Justice of the Delaware Supreme Court, Leo Strine, get the nomination.
The benefits of nominating Chief Justice Strine include:
- Promise of an entertaining nomination process. With all that he has said and written, there would be a lot of fodder, but he would be sure to hold his own.
- A nominee whose wit and writing style could rival Justice Scalia's.
- Diversity. Chief Justice Strine went to Penn for law school, not Harvard or Yale. (Granted, he does teach at Harvard).
- Serious corporate law knowledge, and, at least on this blog, we know the Supreme Court of the United States needs help in this area.
- Extremely bright, curious, and widely read. He likely has knowledge of and an opinion on most areas of law, well outside of just corporate law.
Anyway, I am sure President Obama will go with a more conventional pick, but I do hope to see a Supreme Court justice with corporate law expertise on the court eventually.
Wednesday, February 10, 2016
New Scholarship on Hedge Fund Activism Urges Courts to Adopt Enhanced Scrutiny of Boards' Defensive Actions
Bernard Sharfman, in his new article on SSRN, The Tension Between hedge Fund Activism and Corporate Law, argues that hedge fund activism for control of a publicly traded corporation is a positive corrective measure in corporate governance. After asserting that hedge fund activism should be permitted, Sharfman, argues, controversially, that courts should depart from traditional deference to a corporate board's decision making authority under the business judgment rule. Alternatively, Sharfman urges courts to adopt a heightened standard of scrutiny when reviewing defensive board actions against hedge funds.
[Hedge Fund Activism] has a role to play as a corrective mechanism in corporate governance and it is up to the courts to find a way to make sure it continues to have a significant impact despite the courts’ inclination to yield to Board authority. In practice, this means that when the plaintiff is an activist hedge fund and the standard of review is the Unocal test because issues of control are present, a less permissive approach needs to be applied, requiring the courts to exercise restraint in interpreting the actions of activist hedge funds as an attempt to gain control.
If there are no issues of control, then Board independence and reasonable investigation still needs to be the focus. That is, before the business judgment rule can be applied, the courts need to utilize an enhanced level of scrutiny in determining whether the Board is truly independent of executive management or any other insider such as a fellow Board member. As previously discussed, Board independence is critical to maximizing the value of HFA. Moreover, reasonable investigation of the activist hedge fund’s recommendations should be required to justify Board action taken to mute the fund’s influence. Like the Unocal test, the burden of proof for establishing independence and reasonable investigation needs to be put on the Board. In sum, what is required in the court’s review of Board actions to mute the influence of an activist hedge fund is something similar to the first prong of the Unocal test except independence and reasonable investigation is now focused on the Board’s evaluation of the fund’s recommendations, not the threat to corporate policy and effectiveness.
Sharfman uses Third Point LLC v. Ruprecht, the 2014 Delaware case invovling Sotheby's poison pill, to illustrate how the traditional (deference) standard of review leads to boards being able to defeat hedge fund activists.
An interesting comment published in the Yale Law Journal by Yale Law Student Carmen X.W. Lu, Unpacking Wolf Packs, offers an alternative view of the Third Point case emphasizing the coalition of hedge funds acting in that case and the court's skepticism of wolf pack activist investors.
This week, Delaware Governor Jack Markell nominated Joseph R. Slights, III for the position held by retiring Vice Chancellor John Noble on the Delaware Court of Chancery.
Judge Slights previously served a 12-year term on the Delaware Superior Court. Immediately prior to his nomination, Judge Slights was a commercial litigation partner at the firm of Morris, James, Hitchens & Williams LLP.
Once Vice Chancellor Noble retires, Vice Chancellor Laster will become the judge with the most experience serving on the Delaware Court of Chancery. Vice Chancellor Laster was sworn into his position in October of 2009. It has been a quick 6+ years; it seems like that was just yesterday.
I outsource the details of Joseph Slights' nomination below: