Tuesday, November 11, 2014
About four years ago, despite decades of actively avoiding the idea, I started running. I am no Forrest Gump, but I run 3.5 miles on a reasonably regular basis– usually four or five times a week, sometimes more, and rarely less. My primary running locations, North Dakota and then along the Monongahela River in West Virginia, are both quite windy. The North Dakota winds so are significant, that they can mimic hills, which is what allowed cyclist Andy Hampsten to train for hills in “one of the flattest areas in the world.”
I do a lot of out-and-back runs – out 1.75 miles and back along the same route. During such runs, I often notice a similar phenomenon: I may not have any idea it’s windy if the wind is at my back when I start running. When I get to my turnaround, though, I find a stiff wind in my face. This happens enough that I should probably figure out it is windy before I get to the turnaround, especially since it can lead to a faster pace on the way out, but I still rarely notice. I just think I’m having a good pace day.
In contrast, it’s pretty hard to miss when the wind is in your face. Everything feels hard. Everything feels sluggish and slow. And it feels like, all of a sudden, you have barriers in your way.
During these runs, it often makes me think about how many other places (in the figurative sense) this happens. We all have our challenges, and we often have much to overcome. But some have more challenges than others. Because our individual challenges are real, it can be easy to miss that we may have fewer challenges than other people have.
The things that are barriers to our goals are sometimes obvious to us. For example, as those in the current job hunt for a law professorship likely know, a lack of a top-14 law degree can be a significant limit on the number of options one might have entering the legal academy. It certainly felt like a barrier to certain jobs when I was on the market, anyway.
Because of that, it would be easy to discount other benefits I have because of who I am. I grew up in a safe neighborhood with good schools. I am a white male, which means people have expectations for me that are different than others. There is a level of presumed competence. And, comparatively, presumed authority and ability. If there's no more text visible, please click below to read the whole post.
Saturday, November 1, 2014
I have updated my list of law professor positions at business schools with recent postings by Stephen F. Austin State University (legal studies) and DePaul University (ethics).
Details about both positions are available after the break.
Friday, October 24, 2014
I used to joke that my alma mater Columbia University’s core curriculum, which required students to study the history of art, music, literature, and philosophy (among other things) was designed solely to make sure that graduates could distinguish a Manet from a Monet and not embarrass the university at cocktail parties for wealthy donors. I have since tortured my son by dragging him through museums and ruins all over the world pointing spouting what I remember about chiaroscuro and Doric columns. He’s now a freshman at San Francisco Art Institute, and I’m sure that my now-fond memories of class helped to spark a love of art in him. I must confess though that as a college freshman I was less fond of Contemporary Civilization class, (“CC”) which took us through Plato, Aristotle, Herodotus, Hume, Hegel, and all of the usual suspects. At the time I thought it was boring and too high level for a student who planned to work in the gritty city counseling abused children and rape survivors.
Fast forward twenty years or so, and my job as a Compliance and Ethics Officer for a Fortune 500 company immersed me in many of the principles we discussed in CC, although we never spoke in the lofty terms that our teaching assistant used when we looked at bribery, money- laundering, conflicts of interest, terrorism threats, data protection, SEC regulations, discrimination, and other issues that keep ethics officers awake at night. We did speak of values versus rules based ethics and how to motivate people to "do the right thing."
Now that I am in academia I have chosen to research on the issues I dealt with in private life. Although I am brand new to the field of normative business ethics, I was pleased to have my paper accepted for a November workshop at Wharton's Zicklin Center for Business Ethics Research. Each session has two presenters who listen to and respond to feedback from attendees, who have read their papers in advance. Dr. Wayne Buck, who teaches business ethics at Eastern Connecticut State University, presented two weeks ago. He entitled his paper “Naming Names,” and using a case study on the BP Oil spill argued that the role of business ethics is not merely to promulgate norms around conduct, but also to judge individual businesspeople on moral grounds. Professor John Hasnas of Georgetown’s McDonough School of Business also presented his working paper “Why Don't Corporations Have the Right to Vote?” He argued that if we accept a theory of corporate moral agency, then that commits us to extending them the right to vote. (For the record, my understanding of his paper is that he doesn’t believe corporations should have the right.) Attendees from Johns Hopkins, the University of Connecticut, Pace and of course Wharton brought me right back to my days at Columbia with references to Rawls and Kant. My comments were probably less theoretical and more related to practical application, but that’s still my bent as a junior scholar.
In a few weeks, I present on my theory of the social contract as it relates to business and human rights. In brief, I argue that multinational corporations enter into social contracts with the states in which they operate (in large part to avoid regulation) and with stakeholders around them (the "social license to operate", as Professor John Ruggie describes it). Typically these contracts consist of the corporate social responsibility reports, voluntary codes of conduct, industry initiatives, and other public statements that dictate how they choose to act in society, such as the UN Global Compact. Many nations have voluntary and mandatory disclosure regimes, which have the side benefit of providing consumers and investors with the kinds of information that will help them determine whether the firm has “breached” the social contract by not living up to its promise. The majority of these proposals and disclosure regimes (such as Dodd-Frank conflict minerals) rest on the premise that armed with certain information, consumers and investors (other than socially responsible investors) will pressure corporations to change their behavior by either rewarding “ethical” behavior or by punishing firms who act unethically via a boycott or divestment.
I contend in my article that: (1) corporations generally respond to incentives and penalties, which can cause them to act “morally;” (2) states refuse to enter into a binding UN treaty on business and human rights and often do not uniformly enforce the laws, much less the social contracts; (3) consumers over-report their desire to buy goods and services from “ethical” companies; and (4) disclosure for the sake of transparency, without more, will not lead to meaningful change in the human rights arena. Instead, I prefer to focus on the kinds of questions that the board members, consumers, and investors who purport to care about these things should ask. I try to move past the fuzzy concept of corporate social responsibility to a stronger corporate accountability framework, at least where firms have the ability to directly or indirectly impact human rights.
As a compliance officer, I did not use terms like “deontological” and “teleological” principles, but some heavy hitters such as Norway's Government Pension Fund, with over five billion Kronos under management, do. The 2003 report that helped establish the Fund’s recommendations on ethical guidelines state in part:
One group of ethical theories asserts that we should primarily be concerned with the consequences of the choices we make. These theories are in other words forward-looking, focusing on the consequences of an action. The choice that is ethically correct influences the world in the best possible way, i.e. has the most favourable consequences. Every choice generates an infinite number of consequences and the decisive question is of course which of the consequences we should focus on. Again, a number of answers are possible. Some would assert that we should focus on individual welfare, and that the action that has the most favourable consequences for individual welfare is the best one. Others would claim that access to resources or the opportunities or rights of the individual are most important. However, common to all these answers is the view that the desire to influence the world in a favourable direction should govern our choices.
Another group of ethical theories focuses on avoiding breaching obligations by avoiding doing evil and fulfilling obligations by doing good. Whether the results are good or evil, and whether the cost of doing good is high, are in principle of no significance. This is often known as deontological ethics.
In relation to the Petroleum Fund, these two approaches will primarily influence choice in that deontological ethics will dictate that certain investments must be avoided under any circumstances, while teleological ethics will lead to the avoidance of investments that have less favourable consequences and the promotion of investments that have more favourable consequences.
Recently, NGOs have pressured firms to speak on out human rights abuses at mega-events and have published their responses. The US government has made a number of efforts, some unsuccessful, to push companies toward more proactive human rights initiatives. These issues are here to stay. As I formulate my recommendations, I am looking at the pension fund, some work by ethicists researching marketing principles, writings by political and business philosophers, and of course, my old friends Locke, Rousseau, Rawls and Kant for inspiration. If you have ideas of articles or authors I should consult, feel free to comment below or to email me at email@example.com. And if you will be in Philadelphia on November 14th, register for the session at Wharton and give me your feedback in person.
October 24, 2014 in Books, Business School, Call for Papers, Conferences, Corporate Governance, Corporate Personality, Corporations, CSR, Current Affairs, Ethics, Financial Markets, Marcia Narine, Securities Regulation | Permalink | Comments (0)
Tuesday, October 21, 2014
Below is a call for papers that I received by e-mail earlier today.
RESEARCH COLLOQUIUM: CALL FOR PAPERS
Law and Ethics of Big Data
April 17 & 18, 2015
Indiana University- Bloomington, IN.
Abstract Submission Deadline: January 17, 2015
A research colloquium, “Law and Ethics of Big Data,” co-hosted by Professor Angie Raymond of Indiana University and Janine Hiller of Virginia Tech, is sponsored by the Center for Business Intelligence and Analytics in the Pamplin College of Business, Virginia Tech; the Kelley School of Business at Indiana University; and the Poynter Center for the Study of Ethics and American Institutions at Indiana University.
Up to six invitations for research presentation slots will be extended based on this call for papers. In order to receive consideration, researchers are invited to submit an abstract by January 17, 2015.
Thursday, October 16, 2014
I plan to write a more traditional blog post later if I have time, but I am in the midst of midterm grading hell. I was amused today in class when a student compared the drama of the Francis v. United Jersey Bank case with the bankruptcy, bank, and mortgage fraud convictions of husband and wife Joe and Teresa Guidice from the reality TV hit the Real Housewives of New Jersey.
I had provided some color commentary courtesy of Reinier Kraakman and Jay Kesten’s The Story of Francis v. United Jersey Bank: When a Good Story Makes Bad Law, and apparently Mrs. Pritchard’s defenses reminded the student of Teresa Guidice’s pleas of ignorance. Other than being stories about New Jersey fraudsters, there aren’t a lot of similarities between the cases. Based on my quick skim of the indictment I don’t think that Teresa served on the board of any of the companies at issue--Joe apparently had an LLC and was the sole member, and the vast majority of the counts against the couple relate to their individual criminal conduct. In addition, Teresa is also going to jail, and no one suffered that fate in United Jersey. But luckily, she may see a big payday from a purported book deal and reality TV show spinoff after she’s out, possibly disproving the adage that crime doesn’t pay.
Tuesday, September 23, 2014
March of the Benefit Corporation: So Why Bother? Isn’t the Business Judgment Rule Alive and Well? (Part III)
(Note: This is a cross-posted multiple part series from WVU Law Prof. Josh Fershee from the Business Law Prof Blog and Prof. Elaine Waterhouse Wilson from the Nonprofit Law Prof Blog, who combined forces to evaluate benefit corporations from both the nonprofit and the for-profit sides. The previous installments can be found here and here (NLPB) and here and here (BLPB).)
In prior posts we talked about what a benefit corporation is and is not. In this post, we’ll cover whether the benefit corporation is really necessary at all.
Under the Delaware General Corporation Code § 101(b), “[a] corporation may be incorporated or organized under this chapter to conduct or promote any lawful business or purposes . . . .” Certainly there is nothing there that indicates a company must maximize profits or take risks or “monetize” anything. (Delaware law warrants inclusion in any discussion of corporate law because the state's law is so influential, even where it is not binding.)
Back in 2010, Josh Fershee wrote a post questioning the need for such legislation shortly after Maryland passed the first benefit corporation legislation:
I am not sure what think about this benefit corporation legislation. I can understand how expressly stating such public benefits goals might have value and provide both guidance and cover for a board of directors. However, I am skeptical it was necessary.
Not to overstate its binding effects today, but we learned from Dodge v. Ford that if you have a traditional corporation, formed under a traditional certificate of incorporation and bylaws, you are restricted in your ability to “share the wealth” with the general public for purposes of “philanthropic and altruistic” goals. But that doesn't mean current law doesn't permit such actions in any situation, does it?
The idea that a corporation could choose to adopt any of a wide range of corporate philosophies is supported by multiple concepts, such as director primacy in carrying out shareholder wealth maximization, the business judgment rule, and the mandate that directors be the ones to lead the entity. Is it not reasonable for a group of directors to determine that the best way to create a long-term and profitable business is to build customer loyalty to the company via reasonable prices, high wages to employees, generous giving to charity, and thoughtful environmental stewardship? Suppose that directors even stated in their certificate that the board of directors, in carrying out their duties, must consider the corporate purpose as part of exercising their business judgment.
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Thursday, September 11, 2014
As I predicted in 2011 here and here, in 2012 here, in 2013 in amicus brief, and countless times on this blog, the SEC Dodd-Frank conflicts minerals law has had significant unintended consequences on the Congolese people and has been difficult to comply with. Apparently the Commerce Department, which has a role to play in determining which mines are controlled by rebels so that US issuers can stay away from them, can't actually figure it out either. In the past few days, the Washington Post, the Guardian, and other experts including seventy individuals and NGOS (some Congolese) who signed a memo, have called this misguided law into question. In my view, without the "name and shame" aspect of the law, it is basically an extremely expensive, onerous due diligence requirement that only a few large companies can or have the incentive to do well or thoroughly. More important, and I as I expected, it has had little impact on the violence on the ground and has hurt the people it purported to help.
I had hoped to be wrong. The foundation that I work with helps medical practitioners, midwives, and traditional birth attendants in eastern Congo and many of their patients and neighbors are members of the artisanal mining community. I won’t go as far as Steve Bainbridge has in calling for the law’s repeal because I think that companies should do better due diligence of their supply chains, especially in conflict zones. This law, however, is not the right one for Congo and the SEC is not the right agency to address this human rights crisis. Frankly, I don’t know that the EU's voluntary certification is the right answer either. I hope that Canada, which is looking at a similar rule, pays close heed and doesn’t perpetuate the same mistake that the US Congress made and that the SEC exacerbated. In the meantime, I will stay tuned to see how and if the courts, Congress, and the SEC revisit the rule.
Wednesday, September 10, 2014
We covered a lot of ground today, driving up from Medora, ND, to Williston, ND, through Watford City. The traffic was not terrible for us, though the truck traffic and the road construction was slow going for a while. We're told we missed the worst of the traffic because our timing was good. It still felt like big city traffic in what is not a big city.
Watford City has been a prime example of a place where the oil boom has caused significant growing pains. A recent article in The Atlantic asked, What If Your Small Town Suddenly Got Huge?, and explained:
The Bakken oil boom has brought rapid growth to many towns and cities in western North Dakota, including Williston, north of the Missouri River, and Dickinson, alongside Interstate 94. But Watford City, where the population has jumped from just 1,400 people six years ago to more than 10,000 today, has experienced a particularly dramatic shift in character.
There is dirt being moved everywhere: for roads, for housing, and, of course, for oil. Driving this region you see very few homes, rolling hills, a few small buttes, and some abandoned farm homes. Oil wells blend in surprisingly well in many spots, as the sites are often small, and they look like small farms, without the farm house or barn. The colors of the sites blend in with the landscape, and are often easy to miss if they are far from the road, other than the flicker (and sometimes blaze) of flared natural gas that comes up with the oil and has no where else to go.
It continues to be striking to me that here in oil country, that gas is burned rather than saved, when back in West Virginia and the rest of the Marcellus Shale play (and in Texas's Barnett Shale), millions of dollars are spent per well to pull that exact commondity from the ground. Efforts to gather the gas here in North Dakota are underway, but it's not an easy undertaking. There is little immediate need here for natural gas, as there is abundant electricity already available because of lignite coal, and even some wind and hydro power in the state. The crew camp we visited on Tuesday is completely electric (no natural gas)-- even for heat, because the prices are so low.
Later in the day discussed traffic issues in the area with the state Department of Transportation, landowner issues with a landowner group, and air and water quality with a state health department official. I plan to write more on each of these issues in the next few weeks, so for now I'll just note that, as you'd expect, traffic is bad; landowners without mineral rights are sometimes not happy; and the health department has some challenges.
We also had the chance to speak with a geologist in the area, who explained the basics of the formation and how it works. It was interesting, but I'll leave that to the geology folks, as there are plenty of sources discussing that (PDF). The thing I wanted to note now was her explanation of the North Dakota's library of core samples. A recent Bismarck Tribune article explains:
In the early 1950s when the oil activity began, then-North Dakota State Geologist Wilson M. Laird, Ph.D., went to the legislature and lobbied to preserve the rocks of the producing zones and store them into a library. They bought Laird's concept, created a law based on the Model Act drafted by the Legal Committee of the Interstate Oil Compact Commission and the archives began.
This collection of rocks may be the most valuable rocks on the planet as they hold the secrets to the Bakken. Those secrets are being unlocked everyday as new technologies are created in response to the publicly-owned core samples of North Dakota.
Some states have adopted similar libraries, some have not. Looking across state lines at Montana where the Bakken crude also roams underfoot, less production is occurring. According to many in the industry, the historical shared data within the Wilson Laird library is one of the key reasons.
"In 2013, industry and academia examined 79,000 feet of core, an all-time record in the core library." Ed Burns, North Dakota State Geologist said. "More specifically, we had 28 companies and nine separate universities use the library."
In the past sharing data was not as common due to the large amounts of information, intellectually property rights and competition. North Dakota was the exception to that rule.
Apparently core samples are required about every 30 feet (horizontally or vertically) once the well gets below 8,000 feet vertically. (There are some exceptions when things get going quickly, but even then samples are needed about every 90 feet.) Because so much of North Dakota's information is publicly available, this information can help companies figure out what to look for in the drilling process, which can help maxmize production from wells.
This kind of forced data sharing is rather remarkable in that it's not something we usually see among competitors. That said, in an industry with a depleteable resource where virtually every state has a law outlawing "waste," it does makes some sense. See, e.g., the North Dakota Century Code:
43-02-03-06. Waste prohibited. All operators, contractors, drillers, carriers, gas distributors, service companies, pipe pulling and salvaging contractors, or other persons shall at all times conduct their operations in the drilling, equipping, operating, producing, plugging, and site reclamation of oil and gas wells in a manner that will prevent waste.
The industry would be well served to share such information and show a similar commitment to avoiding waste in all aspects of the process (not just oil and gas). We'd probably see less water use, better environmental protection, and faster clean up where things go wrong. There's some indication that at least the best of the industry are doing so, and I sincerely hope that continues. Stay tuned for Day 4.
Thursday, August 21, 2014
Two news articles about the Dodd-Frank whistleblower law caught my eye this week. The first was an Op-Ed in the New York Times, in which Joe Nocera profiled a Mass Mutual whistleblower, who received a $400,000 reward—the upper level of the 10-30% of financial recoveries to which Dodd-Frank whistleblowers are entitled.
Regular readers of this blog may know that I met with the SEC, regulators and testified before Congress before the law went into effect about what I thought might be unintended effects on compliance programs. I have blogged about my thoughts on the law here and here.
The Mass Mutual whistleblower, Bill Lloyd, complained internally and repeatedly to no avail. Like most whistleblowers, he went external because he felt that no one at his company took his reports seriously. He didn’t go to the SEC for the money. As I testified, people like him who try to do the right thing and try resolve issues within the company (if possible) deserve a reward if their claims have merit.
The second story had a different ending. The Wall Street Journal reported on the Second Circuit opinion supporting Siemens’ claim that Dodd-Frank’s anti-retaliation protection did not extend to its foreign whistleblowing employees. In that case, everything-- the alleged wrongful conduct, the internal reporting, and the termination--happened abroad. The employee did disclose to the SEC, but only after he was terminated, and therefore his retaliation claim relates to his internal reports. The court's reasoning about the lack of extraterritorial jurisdiction was sound, but this ruling may be a victory for multinationals that may unintentionally undermine the efforts to bring certain claims to internal compliance officers.
I proudly serve as a “management representative” on the Department of Labor’s Whistleblower Protection Advisory Committee with union members, outside counsel, corporate representatives, and academics. Although Dodd-Frank is not in our purview, two dozen other laws, including Sarbanes-Oxley are, and we regularly hear from other agencies including the SEC. I will be thinking of these two news articles at our next meeting in September.
I will also explore these issues and others as the moderator of the ABA 8th Annual Section of Labor and Employment Law Conference, which will be held in Los Angeles, November 5-8, 2014. Panelists include Sean McKessey, Chief of the SEC’s Office of the Whistleblower, Mike Delikat of Orrick, Herrington & Sutcliffe LLP, and Jordan A. Thomas of Labaton Sucharow LLP.
The program is as follows:
Program Title: Whistleblower Rewards: Trends and Emerging Issues in Qui Tam Actions and IRS, SEC & CFTC Whistleblower Rewards Claims
Description: This session will explore the types of claims that qualify for rewards under the False Claims Act and the rewards programs administered by the Securities & Exchange Commission, Commodity Futures Trading Commission, and Internal Revenue Service, the quantity and quality of evidence needed by the DOJ, IRS, SEC, and CFTC to investigate a case successfully, and current trends in the investigation and prosecution of whistleblower disclosures. The panel also will address, from the viewpoint of in-house counsel, the interplay between these reward claims and corporate compliance and reporting obligations.
If you can think of questions or issues I should raise at either the DOL meeting in DC next month or with our panelists in November, please email me at firstname.lastname@example.org or leave your comments below.
Saturday, August 9, 2014
Below is a call for abstracts from Professor Amy Sepinwall (Wharton).
Call for Abstracts for the Normative Business Ethics Workshop Series of the Carol and Lawrence Zicklin Center for Business Ethics Research:
Over the 2014-2015 academic year, the Carol and Lawrence Zicklin Center for Business Ethics Research at the Wharton School, University of Pennsylvania, will be convening a regular works-in-progress series for scholars working in normative business ethics (NBE).
The series is part of an effort to foster, and increase the prominence of, normative business ethics in the academy and the public sphere. This particular initiative has two key objectives: First, it endeavors to provide a regular forum for scholars working on business ethics from a normative perspective. The community of such scholars is relatively small, and dispersed across numerous institutions, and there are few opportunities for these individuals to convene and share work. This series is an effort to connect these scholars, and enrich their shared intellectual life. Second, the series aims to be especially valuable to junior faculty, by providing them with feedback from, and opportunities to interact with, more established members of the normative business ethics community. To that end, we hope to have one junior author and one senior author at each session.
The workshop will meet roughly once a month over the academic year, for a total of 6 sessions per year. Anyone with an interest in normative business ethics is invited to attend the sessions. Faculty interested in having their paper discussed at the workshop should submit an abstract and list, in order of preference, the date(s) they could present from those listed below. (Further information about submission can be found under the “Call for Abstracts” below.) Two draft papers will be selected for each session. Complete draft papers will be circulated at least one week in advance of each session and participants will be expected to have read them carefully, and to arrive at the workshop prepared to offer constructive feedback.
The sessions will be structured so as to maximize the opportunity for paper improvement through the comments of a community of scholars committed to normative business ethics. To that end, authors will not present at the session for which their paper has been assigned. Instead, those gathered will go around the table and each participant will offer a few points of feedback on the paper.
An author whose paper is selected for presentation in a given semester will bear an obligation to attend the other two sessions that semester or to send feedback via email to the authors whose papers are presented at any session that she is unable to attend. In this way, each author will be assured of a good number of responses to her paper.
The Zicklin Center will provide the room and refreshments for each session. Attendees will be asked to pay for their own travel expenses. Some travel funding is available for paper authors for the session at which their paper will be discussed.
For Fall 2014, the workshop will be held on the following dates:
Friday, October 10, 2014, 2:00-4:30 PM.
Friday, November 14, 2014, 2:00-4:30 PM.
Friday, December 5, 2014, 2:00-4:30 PM.
Call for Abstracts
We invite individuals interested in workshopping a paper in normative business ethics to submit a paper abstract. The abstract should be a maximum of 500 words, and the accompanying email should indicate preferred dates of presentation from those listed above. Please send these to Lauretta Tomasco, email@example.com, by September 1, 2014. Individuals will be notified about whether their paper has been selected for presentation by September 15, 2014.
Please address all questions to Amy Sepinwall, firstname.lastname@example.org.
Thursday, July 31, 2014
Warning- do not click on the first link if you do not want to see nudity.
Dov Charney founded retailer American Apparel in 1998 and it became an instant sensation with its 20-something year old consumer base. He mixed a "made in America- sweatshop free" CSR focus with a very sexy/sexual set of ads (hence the warning- - when I first created the link, the slideshow went from a topless “Eugenia in disco pants in menthe” (seriously) to a shot of adorable children’s clothing in about 10 seconds). No wonder my 18-year old son, who leaves for art school in two weeks, appreciates the ad campaigns. Most of his friends do too- both the males and females. In fact, he indicated that although they all know about the “sweatshop free” ethos, because “it’s in your face when you walk in the stores,” that’s not what draws them to the clothes. As a person who blogs and writes about human rights and supply chains, I almost wish he had lied to me. But he’s no different than many consumers who over-report their interest in ethical sourcing, but then tend to buy based on quality, price and convenience. I am still researching this issue for my upcoming article on CSR, disclosure regimes and human rights but see here, here, here and here for some sources I have used in the past. My son’s friends--the retailer’s target demographic-- appreciate that the clothes are “sweatshop free” but don’t make their buying decisions because of it. They buy because of the clothes and to a lesser extent, the ads.
The first time I ever really thought about the store was after a 2005 20/20 expose about Charney, who was accused of, among other things, sexually harassing and intimidating numerous employees. At the time I was a management-side employment lawyer and corporate compliance officer and thought to myself “what a nightmare for whomever has to defend him.” It’s pretty hard to shock an employment lawyer, but the allegations, which continued until his ouster last month, were pretty egregious. After over 10 years of lawsuits, the company terminated him for breaching his fiduciary duty, violating company policy, and misusing corporate assets.
Recently, American Apparel’s employment practices liability insurance rose from $350,000 to $1 million, I can only assume, because of his actions and not due to the other 10,000 company employees. The company has been sued repeatedly by the EEOC and not just for sexual allegations. Purportedly, the company, which has never traded above $7.00 a share and today is a steal at $.97, could not get financing from some sources as long as Charney was at the helm.
My son and his friends did not know about the termination or the harassment allegations over the years, but he says that the nature of the allegations could have caused some of his friends to stop and think about whether they wanted to patronize the stores. I have some 30-something friends who refuse to shop there. Could this be why the store chose to add a female director? As I explained to a reporter last week, the company shouldn’t need a female perspective to realize that the founder is, to put it mildly, a risk. And in fact, as studies cited by my co-blogger Josh Fershee noted earlier this week, being the “woman’s voice” may minimize her perceived effectiveness. Yes, it’s true that American Apparel took more decisive action than the NFL last week, as Joan Heminway observed, but what took them so long? Is it too little too late? Where was the general counsel when Charney allegedly refused to take his sexual harassment training, which is required by law in California every two years? Where were the other board members who allowed the settlement of case after case involving Charney? I have often found that some of the most vigilant supporters of women in the workplace, especially in harassment matters, are older males who have daughters and wives and who know what it’s like for them. When did the board worry about whether the CEO's well-publicized alleged attacks on employees contradicted the heavy corporate responsibility branding? Did the board meet its Caremark duties?
Ironically, the company’s 10-K filed two months before his termination indicated that, “In particular, we believe we have benefited substantially from the leadership and strategic guidance of Dov Charney. The loss of Dov Charney would be particularly harmful as he is considered intimately connected to our brand identity and is the principal driving force behind our core concepts, designs and growth strategy.”
So at what point between April and June did Charney’s actions go off the scale on the enterprise risk management heat map? COSO, the standard bearer for ERM, encourages boards to focus on: what the firm is willing to accept as it pursues shareholder value; a knowledge of management’s risk management processes that have identified and assessed the most significant enterprise-wide risks; a review of the risk portfolio compared to the risk appetite; and whether management is properly responding to the most significant risks and apprising the board of those risks. Could such an objective risk assessment have even occurred with Charney (the risk) in the room? How could the company have the right tone at the top when the founder/CEO failed to comply with Code of Ethics Rule #2 --“service to the Company never should be subordinated to personal gain and advantage”? The stock price has been falling for years and the company has been struggling. Did the high rates to insure Charney’s conduct finally become too hot to handle? On the other hand, would the directors have made the same decision if the shares were trading at $97 instead of .97? Some shareholders are raising concerns too about why any of the original board members remain given the appalling financial performance.
The board now has a “suitability committee,” which will review the results of an independent investigation into Charney’s actions. Even if the report clears Charney and he’s brought back, the new independent directors will have a lot of questions to answer. The question of whether there is a woman on the board seems to be almost irrelevant given the history. For the record, even though the literature is mixed on the financial benefits of gender and racial diversity, I am a strong proponent of the diversity of viewpoints, particularly those that the underrepresented can bring to the table.
But this board needs to re-establish trust among its investors and funders and then focus on what any retailer should- potential supply chain disruptions, the impact of any immigration reform, currency fluctuations, and keeping their customer base happy and out of competitors H & M and Forever 21. The last thing they need to worry about is how to pay off the victims of their founder’s latest escapades.
Thursday, July 24, 2014
As many have celebrated or decried, Dodd-Frank turned four-years old this week. This is the law that Professor Stephen Bainbridge labeled "quack federal corporate governance round II" (round I was Sarbanes-Oxley, as labeled by Professor Roberta Romano). Some, like Professor Bainbridge, think the law has gone too far and has not only failed to meet its objectives but has actually caused more harm than good (see here, for example). Some think that the law has not gone far enough, or that the law as drafted will not prevent the next financial crisis (see here, for example). The Council on Foreign Relations discusses the law in an accessible manner with some good links here.
SEC Chair Mary Jo White has divided Dodd-Frank’s ninety-five mandates into eight categories. She released a statement last week touting the Volcker Rule, the new regulatory framework for municipal advisors, additional controls on broker-dealers that hold customer assets, reduced reliance on credit ratings, new rules for unregulated derivatives, additional executive compensation disclosures, and mechanisms to bar bad actors from securities offerings.
Notwithstanding all of these accomplishments, only a little over half of the law is actually in place. In fact, according to the monthly David Polk Dodd-Frank Progress Report:
As of July 18, 2014, a total of 280 Dodd-Frank rulemaking requirement deadlines have passed. Of these 280 passed deadlines, 127 (45.4%) have been missed and 153 (54.6%) have been met with finalized rules. In addition, 208 (52.3%) of the 398 total required rulemakings have been finalized, while 96 (24.1%) rulemaking requirements have not yet been proposed.
Many who were involved with the law’s passage or addressing the financial crisis bemoan the slow progress. The House Financial Services Committee wrote a 97-page report to call it a failure. So I have a few questions.
1) When Dodd-Frank turns five next year, how far behind will we still be, and will we have suffered another financial blip/setback/recession/crisis that supporters say could have been prevented by Dodd-Frank?
2) How will the results of the mid-term elections affect the funding of the agencies charged with implementing the law?
3) What will the SEC do to address the Dodd-Frank rules that have already been invalidated or rendered otherwise less effective after litigation from business groups such as §1502, Conflict Minerals Rule (see here for SEC response) or §1504, the Resource Extraction Rule (see here for court decision)?
4) Given the SEC's failure to appeal after the proxy access litigation and the success of the lawsuits mentioned above, will other Dodd-Frank mandates be vulnerable to legal challenge?
5) Will the whistleblower provision that provides 10-30% of any recovery over $1 million to qualified persons prevent the next Bernie Madoff scandal? I met with the SEC, members of Congress and testified about some of my concerns about that provision before entering academia, and I hope to be proved wrong.
Let's wait and see. I look forward to seeing how much Dodd-Frank has grown up this time next year.
Thursday, July 10, 2014
In last week’s post about the business of the World Cup, I indicated that I would review Christine Bader’s book, The Evolution of a Corporate Idealist: When Girl Meets Oil. I have changed my mind, largely because I don’t have much to add to the great reviews the book has already received. Instead I would like to talk about how lawyers, professors and students can use the advice, even if they have no desire to do corporate social responsibility work as Bader did, or worse, they think CSR and signing on to voluntary UN initiatives is really a form of "bluewashing."
Bader earned an MBA and worked around the world on BP’s behalf on human rights initiatives. This role required her to work with indigenous peoples, government officials and her peers within BP convincing them of the merits of considering the human rights, social, and environmental impacts. She then worked with the UN and John Ruggie helping to develop the UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights, a set of guidelines which outline the state duty to protect human rights, the corporate duty to respect human rights, and both the state and corporations' duty to provide judicial and non-judicial remedies to aggrieved parties. She now works as a lecturer at Columbia University, where she teaches human rights and business and she also advises BSR, which focuses on making businesses more sustainable. Her book tells her story but also quotes a number of other CSR professionals and how they have navigated through some of the world’s largest multinationals.
Bader’s book has some important takeaways for all of us.
1) In order to have influence, we have to learn to speak the language that our audience understands and appreciates- I tell my students that when they write exams for me, it’s all about me. Other professors want their exams written with certain catchphrases using the IRAC method, and I may want something different. One size does not fit all. Attorneys learn (or get replaced) that some clients want long memos, others want executive summaries and bullet points and all want plain English. Talking to a venture capitalist is different than talking to a circuit court judge. Similarly, many law professors are behind the curve. If we only talk to each other in the jargon of the academy and insulate ourselves, the rest of the world won’t have the benefit of our research because they won’t understand or want to read it. Academics have a lot to contribute, but we need to adapt to our audience whether it’s policymakers, judges, our peers or law students.
2) Sometimes we have to be less passionate in making our arguments and appeal to what’s important to our audience- This point relates to Point 1. Bader regularly met with a number of constituencies and was understandably zealous in trying to convince others, internally and externally, about her positions. She and other “corporate idealists” from other firms often learned the importance of language- making a business case to certain internal stakeholders meant talking in terms of the bottom line rather than using the maxim “it’s the right thing to do” or “doing well by doing good.” Good attorneys know how to represent their clients without taking things personally because sometimes the passion can actually dilute effectiveness. As law professors, we need to teach our students to be more effective so that they know how and when to modulate their tone, and how to pivot and change the way they frame their arguments when they can’t convince the recipient of their message.
3) Almost everything comes down to risk management- Bader often had to focus on risk management and mitigation when her moral arguments fell on deaf ears. Those who teach business should make sure that students have a basic understanding of the pressure points that business people face. For some it may be tax liability. For others it may be the appropriate exit strategy. In essence, it all comes down to understanding the client’s risk profile and being able to advise accordingly. Litigators should also understand risk profiles so that they can develop an appropriate settlement strategy and help their client’s work their way through some of the unexpected pitfalls that may arise over the course of the case.
4) Building relationships is a critical skill- Bader learned that social interactions with her peers at BP and the external stakeholders after hours greatly increased her effectiveness in dealing with thorny issues that arose during business hours. Lawyers often believe that if they have the substantive knowledge, they are the smartest people in the room. Law firms don’t teach young associates about the importance of emotional intelligence and building relationships with peers, opposing counsel, and clients. In fact, many law students and lawyers believe that having the reputation as a “shark” is the best way to represent clients. We need to teach our students that it’s better to be respected than feared or hated, and that they can disagree without being disagreeable. Those of us in the academy should model that behavior more often.
5) We must learn to compromise and recognize that incremental changes are important too- Bader and other corporate idealists often want to change the world but quickly learn that internal and external stakeholders aren’t ready to move that fast. She discussed “nudging” her client toward the right direction. Law school and law-related television shows lead students to believe that the end game is to win and to win big. In the business world, sometimes there are no big wins. Lawyers and business advisors often take two steps forward and one step back, and that’s ok. Students and attorneys who take classes in alternative dispute resolution learn this valuable skill. Bader and other corporate idealists also realized that you have to work with people on the opposite side who feel just as strongly that their position is on the side of the angels. Lawyers who know how to build relationships and refocus their messaging can influence those on the other side if they are willing to listen, and when necessary compromise and accept small victories.
6) We can compromise but shouldn’t compromise our values- When Bader felt that her work was no longer fulfilling, she looked for other positions that aligned with her world view. With rising student debt and many lawyers living beyond their means, it’s difficult for lawyers to walk away from a job or client that they don’t like. That’s understandable. It’s more problematic to stay in a situation where there is criminal or ethical misconduct without speaking up or leaving because of the financial handcuffs. It’s also unacceptable to remain in a culture that stifles a lawyer’s ability to raise issues. In some cases, as alleged with some of the GM lawyers, failure to speak up could literally be a matter of life and death.
I enjoyed this quick read because it reminded me so much of my years in corporate life. Bader’s story can teach all of us, even the non corporate-idealists, valuable lessons about coping and thriving in the business world.
Friday, July 4, 2014
The title of this post refers to the thought-provoking book by former BP executive, Christine Bader, The Evolution of a Corporate Idealist: When Girl Meets Oil. I will save a review for next week in Part 2 of this post. Briefly, Bader discusses the internal and external struggles that she and other “corporate idealists” face when trying to provide practical, culturally appropriate, innovative ways to implement corporate social responsibility and human rights programs around the world. Much of what she said resonated with me based upon my years as a compliance and ethics officer for a multinational corporation and as a current consultant on these issues.
Like comedian/TV commentator John Oliver, I am torn about the World Cup and the significant power that soccer/futbol’s international governing body FIFA has over both Brazil and its residents. His hilarious but educational rant is worth a close watch, and I experienced the conflict he describes firsthand during my two recent trips to Salvador, Brazil. I went to watch what the rest of the world calls “the beautiful game” in a country where soccer is a religion. That's not an exaggeration by the way-- I bought a statuette of a monk holding a soccer ball in a local cathedral. The monk had a place of honor in the display case right next to the rosaries. The Cup has political consequences as well -- if Brazil doesn’t win the Cup at home, politicians will feel it in Fall’s election.
Trip one to Brazil was purely for pleasure with sixteen aficionados to experience one of the world's most diverse and beautiful cultures while catching two matches. Because I have spent the last couple of year’s researching and writing on business and human rights, when the US team advanced to the quarter finals, I took advantage of my frequent flyer miles, hastily organized some meetings with human rights activists that I had never met, snagged a ticket to the US v. Belgium match, and spent three days mixing business with pleasure.
I had done my homework of course (see e.g. this on the money aspect, this petition to vote for the worst sponsor, this on police response to protestors, and this from David Zirin on Brazil's actions with the World Cup and Olympics). I also knew that FIFA, the nonprofit with a one billion dollar reserve, pays no taxes to the host country. Indeed, while FIFA will earn several billions in profit from the 2014 Cup, Brazil will have spent over ten billion to host. Luckily Brazil loves soccer, but as you may have seen on the news, protests have erupted in the major cities about the perceived broken promises from the government to the people. The infrastructure, schools, hospitals and other projects have not materialized as promised. And while FIFA only requires eight stadiums for a World Cup, Brazil inexplicably built twelve. The Manaus Stadium in the middle of the Amazon cost $250 million and there is no soccer team there. At least the Salvador stadium, which cost $350 million to tear down and rebuild, can host its two teams as well as some of the soccer for the 2016 Olympics. The favelas where the poorest residents live are in clear view of the luxurious new facility in Salvador because they are within walking distance.
For the privilege of hosting the Cup, Brazil agreed to suspend its 2003 law banning alcohol in stadiums so that Budweiser could sell beer; institute World Cup courts to fast track convictions; exempt sponsor companies from some taxes; and establish exclusion zones 2 kilometers around FIFA-designated areas so that no local vendors can sell their wares—this in a country that is at the bottom 10% on the world for income inequality.
A few hours after I landed, I met with an organizer of the some of the protests in Salvador, Brazil’s third largest city. The next day I met with an activist for the homeless in the office of the Public Defender for Human Rights. Despite government funding, the Public Defender and activist communities in Salvador work closely together to address human rights abuses. I learned the following, among other things. Over 250,000 people throughout Brazil were displaced for the games, many with no compensation. Salvador, a city with over 4,000 homeless, only developed housing for 200 families despite knowing about the games for seven years. Homeless people who did not move when told were harassed by the police. If the harassment didn’t work, police confiscated their documentation and/or clothing and destroyed them. If that didn’t work, street cleaning trucks bombarded them with soap and water as though they were trash. Through the joint efforts of the Public Defender and activists, this activity, which started last September, largely stopped.
I also learned that religious groups can protest against abortion and drug use in exclusion zones but those protesting against FIFA must secretly hand out pamphlets in groups smaller than three people to avoid detection, arrest and jail time (sometimes charged as “terrorists.”). FIFA established almost a dozen agencies to ensure that the Cup went smoothly but most locals have experienced nothing but serious disruption. Hundreds of vendors who had eagerly staked out spaces to sell to tourists were banned and the government gave them no place else to go. People have died and suffered serious injury as FIFA has pressured the Brazilian government to complete projects on time. Although protestors have not focused on them, others have raised questions about the environmental impact of the Cup.
Sony, Johnson & Johnson, Budweiser, Coca-Cola, and McDonald's -- all key sponsors paying upwards of a minimum of $10 million-- tout their corporate social responsibility programs so I have the following ten questions about the business of the World Cup.
1) Is FIFA, the nonprofit corporation, really acting as a quasi-government and if so, what are its responsibilities to protect and respect local communities?
2) Does FIFA have more power than the host country and will it use that power when it requires voters to consider a bidding country’s human rights record when awarding the 2026 Cup as it has suggested?
3) If Qatar remains the site of the 2022 Cup after the various bribery and human rights abuse investigations, will FIFA force that country to make concessions about alcohol and gender roles to appease corporate sponsors?
4) Will/should corporate sponsors feel comfortable supporting the Cup in Russia in 2018 and Qatar in 2022 given those countries’ records and the sponsors’ own CSR priorities?
5) Does FIFA’s antidiscrimination campaign extend beyond racism to human rights or are its own actions antithetical to these rights?
6) Are the sponsors commenting publicly on the protests and human right violations? Should they and what could they say that has an impact? Should they have asked for or conducted a social impact analysis or is their involvement as sponsors too attenuated for that?
7) Should socially responsible investors ask questions about whether companies could have done more for local communities by donating to relevant causes as part of their CSR programs?
8) Are corporations acting as "bystanders", a term coined by Professor Jena Martin?
9) Is the International Olympic Committee, a nonprofit, nongovernmental organization, taking notes?
10) Do consumers, the beneficiaries of creative corporate commercials and viral YouTube videos, care about any of this?
I have thoughts but no answers to my questions and will spend my summer on these corporate responsibility issues. I definitely don’t envy the corporate idealists working for any of these sponsors.
Thursday, July 3, 2014
Friday, June 27, 2014
On Steve Bradford’s recommendation, I chose William Easterly’s (NYU) The Tyranny of Experts: Economists, Dictators, and the Forgotten Rights of the Poor (2014) as the book for my annual beach trip with the in-laws and cousins. (Last year was Daniel Kahneman's (Princeton) Thinking, Fast and Slow – and yes, my wife’s side of the family makes fun of my beach reading material). Easterly is an author I have wanted to read for a while now, and I still need to read some of his earlier books.
More after the break.
Thursday, June 26, 2014
I always enjoy reading Bryan Cave partner Scott Killingsworth's comments in various LinkedIn groups. In addition to practicing law, he’s a contributing editor to a treatise on the duties of board members. He’s just published a short but thorough essay on "The Privatization of Compliance." It reminds me of some of the comments that Dean Colin Scott made at Law and Society about tools of private transnational regulation, which include self-regulation, contracts, consumers, industry initiatives, corporate social responsibility programs and meta-regulators. Killingsworth’s abstract is below.
Corporate Compliance is becoming privatized, and privatization is going viral. Achieving consistent legal compliance in today’s regulatory environment is a challenge severe enough to keep compliance officers awake at night and one at which even well-managed companies regularly fail. But besides coping with governmental oversight and legal enforcement, companies now face a growing array of both substantive and process-oriented compliance obligations imposed by trading partners and other private organizations, sometimes but not always instigated by the government. Embodied in contract clauses and codes of conduct for business partners, these obligations often go beyond mere compliance with law and address the methods by which compliance is assured. They create new compliance obligations and enforcement mechanisms and touch upon the structure, design, priorities, functions and administration of corporate ethics and compliance programs. And these obligations are contagious: increasingly accountable not only for their own compliance but also that of their supply chains, companies must seek corresponding contractual assurances upstream, causing a chain reaction of proliferating and sometimes inconsistent mandates.
This essay examines the origins and the accelerating growth of the privatization of compliance requirements and oversight; highlights critical differences between compliance obligations imposed between private parties and those imposed by governmental actors; and evaluates the trend's benefits, drawbacks and likely direction. Particular attention is given to the use of supplier codes of conduct and contractual compliance mandates, often in combination; to the issue of contractual remedies for social, process-oriented, or vague obligations that may have little direct bearing on the object of the associated business transaction; to the proliferating trend of requiring business partners to "flow down" required conduct and compliance mechanisms to additional tiers within the supply chain; and to this trend's challenging implications for the corporate compliance function's role and its interaction with operations, procurement, and sales groups. Recommendations are made for achieving efficiencies and reducing system dysfunction by seeking a broad consensus on generally accepted principles for business-partner codes of conduct, compliance-related contract clauses, and remedies appropriate to each.
Thursday, June 19, 2014
Regular readers of this blog have seen several posts discussing the materiality of various SEC disclosures. See here and here for recent examples. I have been vocal about my objection to the Dodd-Frank conflict minerals rule, which requires US issuers to disclose their use of tin, tungsten, tantalum and gold deriving from the Democratic Republic of Congo and surrounding nations, and describe the measures taken to conduct audits and due diligence of their supply chains. See this post and this law review article.
Last year SEC Chair Mary Jo White indicated that she has concerns about the amount and types of disclosures that companies put forth and whether or not they truly assist investors in making informed decisions. In fact, the agency is undergoing a review of corporate disclosures and has recently announced that rather than focusing on disclosure “overload” the agency wants to look at “effectiveness,” duplication, and “holes in the regulatory regime where additional disclosure may be good for investors.”
I’m glad that the SEC is looking at these issues and I urge lawmakers to consider this SEC focus when drafting additional disclosure regulation. One possible test case is the Business Supply Chain Transparency on Trafficking and Slavery Act of 2014 (H.R. 4842) by Representative Carolyn Maloney, which would require companies with over $100 million in gross revenues to publicly disclose the measures they take to prevent human trafficking, slavery and child labor in their supply chains as part of their annual reports.
The sentiment behind Representative Maloney’s bill is similar to what drove the Dodd-Frank conflict minerals rule (without the extensive audit requirements) and the California Transparency in Supply Chains Act (CTSA). In her announcement she stated,
“Every day, Americans purchase products tainted by forced labor and this bill is a first step to end these inhumane practices. By requiring companies with more than $100 million in worldwide receipts to be transparent about their supply chain policies, American consumers can learn what is being done to stop horrific and illegal labor practices. This bill doesn’t tell companies what to do, it simply asks them to tell us what steps they are already taking. This transparency will empower consumers with more information that could impact their purchasing decisions.”
While the Conflict Minerals and CTSA are “name and shame” laws, which aim to change corporate behavior through disclosure, the proposed federal bill has a twist. It requires the Secretary of Labor, the Secretary of State and other appropriate Federal and international agencies, independent labor evaluators, and human rights groups, to develop an annual list of the top 100 companies complying with supply chain labor standards.
I don’t have an issue with the basic premise of the proposed federal law because human trafficking is such a serious problem that the American Bar Association, the Department of Labor, and others have developed resources for corporations to tackle the problem within their supply chains. A number of states have also enacted laws, and in fact Republican Florida Governor Rick Scott, hardly the poster child for liberals, announced his own legislation this week (although it focuses on relief for victims).
Further, to the extent that companies are using the 2011 UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights to develop due diligence processes for their supply chains, this disclosure should not be difficult. In fact, the proposed bill specifically mentions the Guiding Principles. I don’t know how expensive the law will be to comply with, and I’m sure that there will be lobbying and tweaks if the bill gets out of the House. But If Congress wants to add this to the list of required corporate disclosures, legislators should monitor the SEC disclosure review carefully so that if the human trafficking bill passes, the agency’s implementing regulations appropriately convey legislative intent.
I know that corporations are interested in this issue because I spoke to a reporter yesterday who was prompted by recent articles and news reports to write about what boards should know about human trafficking in supply chains. As I told the reporter, although I applaud the initiatives I remain skeptical about whether these kinds of environmental, social and governance disclosures really affect consumer behavior and whether these are the best ways to protect the intended constituencies. That’s what I will be writing about this summer.
Tuesday, June 10, 2014
A few weeks ago, Tim Carney wrote a piece in the Washington Examiner that is stuck in my mind. The piece titled Conservatives, big government and the duty to care for the poor discusses what Carney sees as a shift in the rhetoric conservatives are using in reference to the poor and other vulnerable populations. Carney notes that Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) recently referenced a “shared responsibility for the weak.” Carney continues:
Step away from policy debates and think about that phrase. Do you have a responsibility to help the weak? Do you have a responsibility to feed the hungry? To aid the poor?
I think I do. I think everyone does. The Catholic Church teaches us we do.
Conservatives sometimes shy away from this idea, though. One reason is a strong (and overblown) distaste to "helping the lazy." Another reason is that conservatives fear it implies the Left’s answer: big federal programs.
But, in fact, you can grant that you have a duty to the poor and the weak, and then have a really good debate:
Is that duty individual, or some sort of a communal duty?
Does the government have the legitimate right to transfer wealth to satisfy that duty, or is it solely an individual responsibility to fulfill that duty.
If aiding the poor is a legitimate government role, at what level is the aid appropriately delivered — local, state, federal?
I really don't see this as a new debate, but I agree it is a shift from the poverty debate I have seen over the past decade or so. This shift, though, goes back (at least) to the debates of what I remember in the 1980s and early 1990s. The question then, as I recall my vigorous (sometimes informed) college and early career discussions, was not whether the poor needed help. The question was how best to provide that help. (I'll note that even then, conservatives were likely to call me liberal, and liberals often called me conservative. Some things remain the same, I guess.)
Carney frames the conversation appropriately, and asks the right questions because it starts with the right assumption: that helping the poor is required. He notes:
Then there’s plenty of very practical debates: Are federal programs inevitably too bloated and inflexible? Or alternatively, maybe only the federal government has the economies of scale (and ability to make its own money) needed to run a safety net, particularly in economic downturns.
So, what does this have to do with business law? Well, in part, if we agree there is a duty, we must talk about whose duty it is. Is it individual? Is it a communal governmental duty? A communal non-governmental duty? Is it a duty of all people, including corporate persons? To what extent?
Further, the role of government in protecting the weak extends beyond poverty programs. It applies to securities regulation, environmental regulation, and tax policy, all of which are directly, or at least very closely, related to business law. In all of these cases, I think the question of the poverty debate carries through: how do we carry out, as Sen. McConnell put it, our “shared responsibility for the weak?”
The conversation that follows that question is a good one because it does not reduce all arguments to some version of "caveat emptor" or only the "government/market will fix it." Instead, the questions can be, for example: Does less regulation increase risks to vulnerable parties or increase access to opportunities for such parties? If the answer is both, as it often is, how do we balance those risks and opportunities?
The market is often the best solution, but one still needs to explain why that's true, rather than blindly relying on some amorphous, all-knowing "market." And as those of us who work closely with regulated industries know, we need to acknowledge that all markets have rules (public and/or private), and those rules impact how effective that market will be and for whom. As such, the poverty debate is also largely a regulatory debate. In all cases, if we start in the right place, better policy is likely to follow.
Tuesday, June 3, 2014
The Louisiana Supreme Court recently denied the state's attempt to collect sales tax on the sale of an RV to a Montana LLC. Thomas v. Bridges, No. 2013-C-1855 (La. 2014). The LLC was formed for the sole purpose of avoiding RV sales tax (saving the buyer as much as $47,000). The state argued that the LLC veil should be pierced and the tax should be assessed to the LLC's sole member claiming fraud. The court disagreed, explaining that "taking actions to avoid sales tax does not constitute fraud. Although tax evasion is illegal, tax avoidance is not."
There were problems with the state's attempt from the outset. First, the sale occurred in Louisiana, but the RV was housed in Mississippi. Even if the LLC were to be disregarded, Mississippi, it seems to me, would be the state that should be asserting the claim. Second, the state attempted to collect from the LLC's member before ever trying to collect from the LLC. Thus, the veil-piercing claim was being used as a post hoc justification for the attempt to recover from the LLC's member and was not properly raised below.
This "legal loophole" (which is redundant because if it's a loophole, it's legal and if not, it's fraud), can be fixed by legislation, as Justice Guidry concurred,
While I concur in the majority analysis and result, I write additionally to encourage the legislature to revisit this area of the law on foreign limited liability corporations formed solely for the purpose of sales tax avoidance on purchases made in Louisiana. As the facts of this case suggest, the law may be susceptible to abuse.
Justice Clark's concurrence goes a step further:
Because I see no actual violation of the letter of the law in this matter, I concur with the result reached by the majority. However, I am concerned that the spirit of the law is not being protected. The potential for abuse in allowing the creation of sham entities to avoid the payment of taxes has policy implications that are worthy of the legislature’s attention.
I agree with Justice Guidry, but I think Justice Clark goes too far. I just don't see this as a sham entity. It does seem a bit shady, I admit, but shady does not equal a sham. The entity here is a tax avoidance vehicle, but the entity is real, and the entity was apparently properly formed. There was no allegation that the entity was not real, not disclosed, or otherwise used to perpetrate fraud. There are other ways to try to ensure taxes are paid in a state where the RV is housed. (As a side note, though, one should always be sure to make it very clear that one is signing for the entity and not in one's individual capacity.)
And like the competition for entity formation, states often compete for business in a variety of ways. Maine, for example, has long-term leasing for trailers, including 8-, 12-, 20- and 25-year terms, that latter of which requires registration of at least 30,000 trailers.
Other states choose to charge annual personal property taxes on vehicles like my home state of West Virginia. Similarly, the State of Virginia assesses personal property tax on vehicles kept by non-residents in the state, as long as the tax is paid somewhere:
Any person domiciled in another state, whose motor vehicle is principally garaged or parked in this Commonwealth during the tax year, shall not be subject to a personal property tax on such vehicle upon a showing of sufficient evidence that such person has paid a personal property tax on the vehicle in the state in which he is domiciled.
It seems Montana is using entity law to make a few dollars on state LLC formations, but that the benefit will likely be short lived. I would expect many states will respond to reduce the effectiveness of this behavior. The more interesting response, though, would be if Montana were to pass an annual RV property tax on entities (not individuals) that own such vehicles. Montana natural persons, of course, don't need entities to avoid RV sales tax, so the tax would only (or mostly) impact out-of-state individuals who would have to pay taxes for their Montana entity. Because these nonresidents can't vote in the state, it would be hard for these folks to raise too much of a ruckus.
Whether it is Montana or the location the RV is stored, the loopholes may start to close quickly. That, though, is a cost of doing business, even if the only business the entity tries to conduct is tax avoidance.