Tuesday, March 13, 2018
A recent Georgia case highlights a whole host of things that frustrate me with litigation related to limited liability companies (LLCs). This one features an LLC making incorrect arguments and a court sanctioning that silliness. For example
Baja Properties argues that it is exempted from the rule set out in OCGA § 43-41-17 (b) by a provision in OCGA § 43-41-17 (h). Subsection (h) states, in part:
Nothing in this chapter shall preclude any person from constructing a building or structure on real property owned by such person which is intended upon completion for use or occupancy solely by that person and his or her family, firm, or corporation and its employees, and not for use by the general public and not offered for sale or lease. In so doing, such person may act as his or her own contractor personally providing direct supervision and management of all work not performed by licensed contractors.
contend that the trial court erred by denying their motion for summary judgment as to negligence claims asserted against them personally. They assert that corporate law insulates them from liability and that, while a member of an limited liability corporation [sic] may be liable for torts in which he individually participated, Ugo Mattera has pointed to no evidence that the Goldens specifically directed a particular negligent act or participated or cooperated therein. We agree with the Goldens that they were entitled to summary judgment on Ugo Mattera's negligence claim.An officer of a corporation who takes part in the commission of a tort by the corporation is personally liable therefor, and an officer of a corporation who takes no part in the commission of a tort committed by the corporation is not personally liable unless he specifically directed the particular act to be done or participated or cooperated therein.Jennings v. Smith, 226 Ga. App. 765, 766 (1), 487 S.E.2d 362 (1997) (citation omitted). Thus, if Baja Properties was negligent in constructing the house, an officer of the corporation could be held personally liable for the negligent construction if he specifically directed the manner in which the house was constructed or participated or cooperated in its negligent construction. See Cherry v. Ward, 204 Ga. App. 833, 834 (1) (a), 420 S.E.2d 763 (1992).
Monday, February 26, 2018
Professional Responsibility in an Age of Alternative Entities, Alternative Finance, and Alternative Facts
Like my fellow editors here at the BLPB, I enjoyed the first Business Law Prof Blog conference hosted by The University of Tennessee College of Law back in the fall. They have begun to post their recently published work presented at that event over the past few weeks. See, e.g., here and here (one of several newly posted Padfield pieces) and here. I am adding mine to the pile: Professional Responsibility in an Age of Alternative Entities, Alternative Finance, and Alternative Facts. The SSRN abstract reads as follows:
Business lawyers in the United States find little in the way of robust, tailored guidance in most applicable bodies of rules governing their professional conduct. The relative lack of professional responsibility and ethics guidance for these lawyers is particularly troubling in light of two formidable challenges in business law: legal change and complexity. Change and complexity arise from exciting developments in the industry that invite—even entice—the participation of business lawyers.
This essay offers current examples from three different areas of business law practice that involve change and complexity. They are labeled: “Alternative Entities,” “Alternative Finance,” and “Alternative Facts.” Each area is described, together with significant attendant professional responsibility and ethics challenges. The essay concludes by offering general prescriptions for addressing these and other professional responsibility and ethics challenges faced by business lawyers in an age of legal change and complexity.
I do not often write on professional responsibility issues. However, I do feel an obligation every once in a while to add to the literature in that area addressing issues arising in transactional business law. In essence, it's service through scholarship.
I hope you read the essay and, if you do, I hope you enjoy it. I also can recommend the commentary on it published by my UT Law faculty colleague George Kuney and my student Claire Tuley. Both comments will be available electronically in the coming months. I will try to remember to post links . . . .
Tuesday, February 13, 2018
I suspect click-bait headline tactics don't work for business law topics, but I guess now we will see. This post is really just to announce that I have a new paper out in Transactions: The Tennessee Journal of Business Law related to our First Annual (I hope) Business Law Prof Blog Conference co-blogger Joan Heminway discussed here. The paper, The End of Responsible Growth and Governance?: The Risks Posed by Social Enterprise Enabling Statutes and the Demise of Director Primacy, is now available here.
To be clear, my argument is not that I don't like social enterprise. My argument is that as well-intentioned as social enterprise entity types are, they are not likely to facilitate social enterprise, and they may actually get in the way of social-enterprise goals. I have been blogging about this specifically since at least 2014 (and more generally before that), and last year I made this very argument on a much smaller scale. Anyway, I hope you'll forgive the self-promotion and give the paper a look. Here's the abstract:
Social benefit entities, such as benefit corporations and low-profit limited liability companies (or L3Cs) were designed to support and encourage socially responsible business. Unfortunately, instead of helping, the emergence of social enterprise enabling statutes and the demise of director primacy run the risk of derailing large-scale socially responsible business decisions. This could have the parallel impacts of limiting business leader creativity and risk taking. In addition to reducing socially responsible business activities, this could also serve to limit economic growth. Now that many states have alternative social enterprise entity structures, there is an increased risk that traditional entities will be viewed (by both courts and directors) as pure profit vehicles, eliminating directors’ ability to make choices with the public benefit in mind, even where the public benefit is also good for business (at least in the long term). Narrowing directors’ decision making in this way limits the options for innovation, building goodwill, and maintaining an engaged workforce, all to the detriment of employees, society, and, yes, shareholders.
The potential harm from social benefit entities and eroding director primacy is not inevitable, and the challenges are not insurmountable. This essay is designed to highlight and explain these risks with the hope that identifying and explaining the risks will help courts avoid them. This essay first discusses the role and purpose of limited liability entities and explains the foundational concept of director primacy and the risks associated with eroding that norm. Next, the essay describes the emergence of social benefit entities and describes how the mere existence of such entities can serve to further erode director primacy and limit business leader discretion, leading to lost social benefit and reduced profit making. Finally, the essay makes a recommendation about how courts can help avoid these harms.
February 13, 2018 in Business Associations, Corporate Governance, Corporate Personality, Corporations, CSR, Current Affairs, Delaware, Joshua P. Fershee, Law and Economics, Lawyering, Legislation, LLCs, Management, Research/Scholarhip, Shareholders, Social Enterprise, Unincorporated Entities | Permalink | Comments (0)
Friday, December 22, 2017
One of the things I have noticed in raising two young children is how both my son and my daughter are much more likely to do what I do than they are to do what I say.
For example, I’ve always encouraged my children to be active, but it wasn’t until I started running that they really started being interested in running themselves. Now, they stage mock races, love their “running shoes,” and ask which foods will make them fast. On the less positive side, when they see me looking at my phone or eating sweets, they want to do the same thing, regardless of what I say is best for them.
Similarly, I had a professor in law school who insisted that we be on-time to class. He explained all the reasons why a habit of punctuality would benefit us in our careers, but then proceeded to be late a number of times himself. He attempted to explain this away, telling us “the partners in the law firm may be late, but that doesn’t excuse lateness from you.” Nevertheless, the students did not seem to respect the professor’s cautionary tale about being late because of the own actions, and it became difficult for him to hold the line he had drawn.
While all of us are human and flawed, the above is a good reminder to me. Our children and our students are watching us, and we are likely to have a bigger impact through our example than through our words.
Friday, December 8, 2017
I have had an opportunity to read the oral argument transcript (112 pages) from Tuesday's oral argument in the Masterpiece Cakeshop case.
One of the first things that struck me was that it seemed pretty clear that most of the justices have already taken sides. This is not surprising, but it does sadden me.
I wish that judges, especially justices on the Supreme Court of the United States, were really trying to get the "correct" answer rather than reasoning backward from some predetermined outcome. Perhaps that is naive. Perhaps that is not possible. My former Constitutional Law professor warned of some of the political issues with the Supreme Court and recently wrote about the issues in his book Supreme Myths: Why the Supreme Court Is Not a Court and Its Justices Are Not Judges.
Only Justice Kennedy is thought to be "in play" in this case. All intelligent people of integrity, however, should be aware of their biases, open to the possibly that their initial thoughts are wrong, and open to persuasion based on the law and the facts. Maybe that is too much to ask. Or maybe on of the "reliably conservative" or "reliably liberal" justices will surprise us in this case. In any event, I am definitely looking forward to reading this opinion; it will undoubtedly bring significant consequences.
(As an aside, corporate law scholars may be interested in pages 96-98 regarding who is speaking - Masterpiece Cakeshops (the entity) or Jack Phillips (the individual)).
Monday, November 27, 2017
Friend-of-the-BLPB Ben Edwards penned a nifty op ed that was published yesterday (Sunday, November 26) in The Wall Street Journal. (Sorry. It's behind a firewall, available only to subscribers.) It covers a subject near and dear to my heart and does so in a novel way. Specifically, in the WSJ piece (entitled "Immigrants Need Better Protection—From Their Lawyers") Ben deftly describes the extremely low quality representation that immigrants receive in the United States, notes the market's inability to self-correct to remedy the situation, shares his view that "the best solution--a right to immigration counsel similar to the right to a criminal defense lawyer--" is unlikely to attract and sustain the necessary legislative support, and proposes a novel second-best solution to the problem.
In a forthcoming article in the Washington and Lee Law Review, I argue that requiring disclosure of immigration lawyers’ track records could improve the market for representation. It almost certainly would drive some of the worst out of business. Who wouldn’t shop around after discovering a lawyer ranked in the bottom 10% by client outcomes? Although no lawyer should be expected to win them all, immigrants should get nervous if their lawyer always loses.
Ben uses the concept of a prospectus as his template reference point for the disclosure concept he describes in the article--unsurprising, perhaps, given his professional practice experience as a business litigator and the fact that his academic endeavors leverage that practice experience. The title of the article is: The Professional Prospectus: A Call for Effective Professional Disclosure.
I became aware of the many problems that immigrants have in securing adequate legal representation back in 1990. Susan Akram (now Director of the International Human Rights Clinic at the Boston University School of Law, but then the Executive Director of the Political Asylum/Immigration Representation (PAIR) Project in Boston) came to the Skadden, Arps office in Boston, where I then was an Associate, and informed us about the particular difficulties in securing representation for asylees, whose chances of success in proving and prevailing in their asylum applications was almost nil without representation and relatively high with pro bono representation. I left the room knowing I needed to help.
The situation then described continues to exist today. Ben notes in the WSJ op ed that
the best immigration lawyers may struggle to make a living because their corner-cutting competitors depress the price of services. That’s part of why many talented practitioners choose to abandon immigration law. This has led to a shortage of representation. One 2015 study found that only 37% of people in removal proceedings have lawyers.
He also relates that "[p]ro bono lawyers—who handle less than 10% of cases—win about 90% of the asylum claims they file."
Over the years, working with the PAIR Project, I was proud to represent or assist in representing refugees from Somalia, Zaire (now the Democratic Republic of the Congo), Haiti, Burma (now Myanmar), and Ethiopia. My Somali client married a U.S. citizen, became a permanent legal resident, and later became a U.S. citizen. The daughter of the Zairean couple I worked with--who was separated from her parents in the journey to the U.S. but eventually reunited with them here with my assistance (and Senator Ted Kennedy's help) is a nurse. There are other stories, of course, as well. Although I have lost track of many of the clients and their families over time, the pride in helping them has not diminished.
Ben's professional prospectus idea has merit in the immigration lawyering context. In my view, it is unlikely, alone, to completely solve the problem, and it may have trouble getting traction in the communities that would be responsible for its promotion and implementation. But it is a step in the right direction in ensuring that immigrants get meaningful representation in navigating our complex legal waters, which currently are populated by too many sharks.
Tuesday, November 21, 2017
Hardesty on Law Students as Future Leaders: Using Neutral Facilitation Techniques to Teach Leadership Skills
I have had the pleasure to work with a diverse and impressive group of people on the law faculties upon which I have had the privilege to serve. One of those people is David C. Hardesty, Jr., President Emeritus of West Virginia University and Professor of Law at the WVU College of Law. President Hardesty holds degrees from West Virginia University, Oxford University (which he attended as a Rhodes Scholar), and Harvard Law School, but more impressive is the time he spends mentoring students and faculty. He remains committed to the college, university, and state, and we are fortunate he continues to share his time with us.
President Hardesty teaches a course on leadership, called Lawyers as Leaders, which would be highly relevant at any law school, but it especially important at a school like ours where we are the only law school in the state. In addition to serving clients big and small, our students consistently go on to hold public office, advise legislators and regulators, and run large companies in the state. President Hardesty recently wrote an article for the West Virginia Law Review Online that explains part of how he helps prepares lawyers to be leaders. The article is Law Students as Future Leaders: Using Neutral Facilitation Techniques to Teach Leadership Skills, 120 W. Va. L. Rev. Online 1 (2017). The introduction explains:
Lawyers lead in America. They always have. They probably always will. This Article suggests the reasons why. It also argues that if lawyers are destined to lead, then law schools should help law students develop an understanding of leadership theory and foster leadership skill development. The Article describes how a course called “Lawyers as Leaders” is taught at the West Virginia University College of Law, employing neutral facilitation techniques, as well as lectures, group discussions, journaling, and simulation activities. It then describes a powerful pedagogical tool that can be used to develop future leaders: “student-centered neutral facilitation.” It explains why neutral student-centered facilitation is an effective method for teaching leadership skills to law students. The Article begins and ends with two “facilitation stories,” highlighting the use of facilitation by experienced lawyers and law students alike. The first story is about the use of facilitation to help clients achieve their goals. The second is about a student in the midst of learning how to facilitate a discussion.
As we continue to evolve how we think about educating lawyers, and what we hope to accomplish, courses that discuss options and expectation in context can play a significant role in preparing our students. Hardesty explains:
Research has found that the student-centered discussion process enriches student learning. In particular, the incorporation of the student-centered discussion process into the classroom “has the potential of enhancing the level of student learning about the course content and about the way they and others think about difficult issues.” This finding makes sense given that students tend to remember course content based on their level of involvement it. Faculty members have reported that content coverage in their courses has not declined in student-centered classrooms; rather, they have found that their students experience a deeper understanding of the course’s fundamental concepts. One explanation for this deeper level of understanding is that students discover for themselves the essential concepts that would normally be presented through course readings or lecture material. In addition, “[f]aculty report that they have seen students who have not been ‘stars’ in previous classes suddenly ‘blossom’” in the student-centered classroom environment. Because students feel safe and comfortable working with their teammates, student-centered discussions can bring out the potential that some students have but may not otherwise reveal in more traditional classroom environments. (footnotes omitted)
As the semester draws to a close, I thought this one was worth a look as you gear up for next semester's courses. It helped me think about some new ideas, anyway. Happy Thanksgiving!
Tuesday, October 31, 2017
When the indictment for Paul Manafort and Richard Gates was released yesterday, I decided to take a look, in part because I read that the charges included claims that the defendants "laundered money through scores of United States and foreign corporations, partnerships, and bank accounts." (Manafort Indictment ¶ 1.)
It did not take long for people to note an initial mistake in the indictment. The indictment states that Yulia Tymoshenko was the president of the Ukraine prior to Viktor Yanukovych. (Id. ¶ 22.) But, Dan Abrams' Law Newz notes, "Tymoshenko has never been the president of the Ukraine. She ran in the Ukrainian presidential election against Yanukoych in 2010 and came in second. Tymoshenko ran again in 2014 and came in second then, too." Abrams continues:
The Tymoshenko flub is a massive error of fact, but it doesn’t impinge much–if any–on the narrative contained in the indictment itself. The error doesn’t really bear upon the background facts related to Manafort’s and Gates’ alleged crimes. The error also doesn’t bear whatsoever upon the laws Manafort and Gates are accused of breaking. Rather, it’s an error which bears upon the credibility of the team now seeking to prosecute the men named in the indictment.
Perhaps. It is a high-profile mistake, but it doesn't go to the core of the charges, so I think this may overstate it a bit. Still, it is hardly ideal, and it's definitely an unforced error. And unfortunately, there is a second such error.
Paragraph 12 of the indictment provides a chart of entities that were "owned or controlled" by the defendants. The chart headings provide "Entity Name," "Date Created," and "Incorporation Location." But a number of the entities are not corporations. They are LLCs, and you do not "incorporate" an LLC. You form an LLC. (Also, just to be clear, LLCs are not "partnerships," either. They are LLCs.)
Similar to the Tymoshenko error, the type of entity does not appear to impact the underlying narrative or charges. For example, entity type does not appear to impact the "conspiracy to launder money" count. And other jurisdictions, such as Cyprus, do tend to merge the corporate concept with the company concepts in a way that might make the chart headings less wrong than it is for U.S. entities. Nonetheless, it would not have been that hard to go with "Entity Origin" or "Formation Location."
Okay, so all of this is rather nitpicky, and I get that. The underlying charges are serious, and I hope and expect that the charges and the surrounding facts (not these mistakes) will be the focus of the legal process as it runs its course. But, it is also proper, I think, to work toward getting the entire document right. Details matter, and at some point could mean the difference between winning and losing, even if that does not appear to be the case this time around.
Monday, October 30, 2017
The title of this post is hyperbole on some level. But with Halloween being tomorrow, I couldn't resist the temptation to use a festive greeting to introduce today's post. And there is a bit of a method to my titling madness . . . .
I admit that I do feel a bit tricked by the removal of the Leidos, Inc. v. Indiana Public Retirement System case (about which co-blogger Ann Lipton and I each have written--Ann most recently here and I most recently here) from the U.S. Supreme Court's calendar. It was original scheduled to be heard a week from today. Apparently, based on the related filings with the Court, the parties are documenting a settlement of the case. Kevin LaCroix offers a nice summary here. How cunning and skillful! Just when I thought resolution of important duty-to-disclose issues in Section 10(b)/Rule 10b-5 litigation was at hand . . . .
Indeed, I had hoped for a treat. What pleasure it would have given me to see this matter resolved consistent with my understanding of the law! The issue before the Court in Leidos is somewhat personal for me (in a professional sense) for a simple reason--a reason consistent with the amicus brief I co-authored on the case. I share that reason briefly here to further illuminate my interest in the case.
In my 15 years of practice before law teaching, I often advised public company issuers on mandatory disclosure documents--periodic filings and offering documents, most commonly. I also counseled investment banks serving as public offering underwriters, placement agents for private securities offerings, and financial advisors in transactions. Even in those days, I was a bit of a rule-head (self-labeled)--a technically engaged legal advisor who tried to stick to the law and regulations, determine their meaning, and implement them consistent with their meaning in practice. I drove colleagues to distraction and boredom, on occasion, with my explanations of the appropriate interpretation of various rules, including specifically mandatory disclosure rules. (This may be why I love the work of the Sustainability Accounting Standards Board, which is looking at mandatory disclosure rules in context.) I teach my students from that same nerdy vantage point.
In advising issuers and others on mandatory disclosure (and in training junior lawyers in the firm), I always noted that facial compliance with the specific line-item disclosure requirements for a Securities and Exchange Commission ("SEC") form is not enough. I advised that two additional legal constraints also govern the appropriate content of the public disclosures required to be made in those forms--constraints that required them to inquire about (among other things) missing information.
- First, I noted the existence of the general misstatements and omissions disclosure (gap-filler) rules under the Securities Act of 1933 or the Securities Exchange Act of 1934, as amended (as applicable in the circumstances)--Rule 408 under the 1933 Act and Rule 12b-20 under the 1934 Act. Each of these rules provides for the disclosure of "such further material information, if any, as may be necessary to make the required statements, in the light of the circumstances under which they are made not misleading" in addition to the information expressly required to be included in the relevant disclosure document under applicable line-item disclosure rules.
- Second, I noted that anti-fraud law--and, in particular, Section 10(b) of, and Rule 10b-5 under, the 1934 Act--provides an even more comprehensive basis for interrogating the contents of disclosure that facially complies with line-item mandatory disclosure rules. The overall message? No one wants a fraud suit, and if they get one, they should be able to get out of it fast! If a business and its principals were to be sued under Section 10(b) and Rule 10b-5, I wanted to ensure that the relevant disclosures were accurate and complete in all material respects.
Thus, the existence of the line-item and gap-filling disclosure rules--and the potential for fraud liability based on failed compliance with them--are, taken together, important motivators to the best possible disclosure. In my business lawyering, I believe I used these regulatory principles to my clients' advantage. I would hate to see lawyers lose the important leverage that potential fraud liability gives them in fostering accurate and complete disclosures, fully compliant with law. Hence, my position on the Leidos litigation--that mandatory disclosure rules do give rise to a duty to disclose that may form the basis for a securities fraud claim under Section 10(b) and Rule 10b-5. (The ultimate success of any such claim would be, of course, based on the satisfaction of the other elements of a Section 10(b)/Rule 10b-5 claim.)
So, no treat for me--at least not just yet. But perhaps this post will forestall any real trickery--the trickery involved with avoiding securities fraud liability for misleading omissions to state material information expressly required to be stated under line-item mandatory disclosure rules. For me, that is what is at stake in Leidos and in disclosure lawyering generally. Let's see what transpires from here.
Wednesday, October 25, 2017
Today I sat through a panel at the ABA International Law Section Meeting entitled, I, Robot - The Increasing Use and Misuse of Technology by In-House Legal Departments. I have already posted here about Ross and other programs. I thought I would share other vendors that in-house counsel are using according to one of the panelists:
- Deal point - virtual deal room.
- Casetext - legal research.
- Disco AI; Relativity; Ringtail - apply machine learning to e-discovery.
- Ebrevia; Kira Systems; RAVN - contract organization and analysis.
- Julie Desk - AI "virtual assistant" for scheduling meetings.
- Law Geex - contract review software that catches clauses that are unusual, missing, or problematic.
- Legal Robot - start-up uses AI to translate legalese into plain English; flags anomalies; IDs potentially vague word choices.
- LexMachina - litigation analytics.
- NeotaLogic - client intake and early case assessment.
- Robot Review - compares patent claims with past applications to predict patent eligibility.
- Ross Intelligence - AI virtual attorney from IBM (Watson).
These and their future competitors lead to new challenges for lawyers, law professors, and bar associations. Will robots engage in the unauthorized practice of law? What are the ethical ramifications of using artificial intelligence in legal engagements? How much do you tell clients about how or what is doing their legal research? What about data security issues for this information? How do we deal with discovery disputes? Can robot lawyers mediate? Why should lawyers who bill by the hour want the efficiency of artificial intelligence and machine learning? Finally, how do we help students develop skills in “judgment” and how to advise and counsel clients in a world where more of the traditional legal tasks will be automated (and 23% of legal task already are)? These are frightening and exciting times, but I look forward to the challenge of preparing the next generation of lawyers.
Friday, September 8, 2017
Gabriel (“Gabe”) Azar and I graduated one year apart, from the same law school. He has an undergraduate degree in electrical engineering from Georgia Tech and started his legal career as an associate practicing patent law at Finnegan, Henderson, Farabow, Garrett & Dunner, LLP. He moved from Finnegan to Paul Hastings and from there to an in-house position with FIS. Currently, he is Senior Patent Counsel at Johnson & Johnson. I’ve admired, mostly from a distance (he lives in Jacksonville, FL now), how Gabe has balanced family, work, and health. We recently reconnected on Strava, and it has been inspiring to see a dedicated husband/father/attorney taking his fitness seriously.
The interview is below the page break.
Tuesday, September 5, 2017
Reading closely is a highly valuable skill for both lawyers and law students. But reading closely is not the only key to getting the most out of reading materials. Often, knowing what to look for can help us discern what we're really being told. An article at LawFare, How to Read a News Story About an Investigation: Eight Tips on Who Is Saying What, by Benjamin Wittes, does a nice job of providing some tools to help read news stories more carefully, and perhaps accurately, especially when it comes to sources. Note that this piece applies to reputable reporters, not everyone who has written something about current events.
One solid takeaway:
Reporters publish what they know. If a story describes a series of interactions between a witness or a subject of an investigation and the investigators and the story contains information about one side’s thinking but not the other’s, that’s a powerful sign of where the disclosure came from.
Many of the skills here would translate into other settings, too. For example, Wittes' first rule: The Words Describing a Source Should Be Presumed Accurate. He says, "Always start with the precise words the journalist is using to describe her sources. An ethical journalist will never write a sentence that is not on its own terms true." This should be true of a SEC filings or other corporate disclosure documents, too, but it does not mean that the words will clearly communicate the same thing to all readers.
Wittes' Rule No. 2 also applies: Don’t Make Hasty Assumptions About Vague Sourcing.
While the words have to be true, they emphatically do not have to be evocative of some larger truth. While the words have to be true, they emphatically do not have to be evocative of some larger truth. The conventions associated with sourcing stories like these permit a certain degree of misdirection about which the reasonable reader should be savvy. Reporters have a duty to inform the public; they also have a duty to protect their sources. These goals often conflict, and the solution is sometimes to inform the public in a fashion that is technically accurate but is not what a naive reader would expect certain words to mean.
As to this rule, I would not say that "misdirection" is permitted in SEC filings, but this last part seems generally true of many SEC disclosures: they inform the public in a "technically accurate" way but not necessarily in a way that "a naive reader would expect certain words to mean." I know some people will disagree with my cynical view on this, but that's my take. The closing advice: "Read sourcing sentences both literally and broadly." Same with disclosures.
I recommend reading Wittes' piece for its intended purpose and to see what you might take away for application in other settings. It's a solid and thought-provoking overview, whether you agree with my assessment or not.
Tuesday, August 29, 2017
And so it continues:
In a recent case in the United States District Court, District of Columbia, a court messes up the entity (referring to one of the parties as “Howard Town Center Developer, LLC, is a limited liability corporation (‘LLC’)") and also does a fine job of improperly stating (or really, failing to state) the law for veil piercing.
I took the initiative to pull the initial complaint and the answer to see if either of the parties were responsible for calling the LLC a corporation. Both sides properly referred to the LLC as a “limited liability company,” so it appears the corporation reference is a court-created issue.
In the case, a property developer brought action to require a university landowner to reinstate a ground lease and development agreement between developer and university, after the university sent notices of termination. The University counterclaimed to recover unpaid rent. The court determined, among other things, that the university was entitled to the damages it sought of $1,475,000 for unpaid rents and to attorney fees related to the developer's breach of a ground lease and development agreement. But the opinion doesn’t stop there.
It is quite clear that the developer LLC does not have the funds to pay the judgment, so the question of whether the LLC’s veil could be pierced was also raised. The court, I think properly, determined that “a targeted asset or individual must be named before veil-piercing may be considered.” Howard Town Ctr. Developer, LLC v. Howard U., CV 1075 (BAH), 2017 WL 3493081, at *56 (D.D.C. Aug. 14, 2017). The court continued: “The University should not lament, nor the Developer celebrate, that conclusion, however, on the erroneous assumption that the University has waived its right to veil-piercing in this matter.” Id.
The court then determined that, because of “considerations of justice and equity,” the university could later seek a veil-piercing action if it were unable to satisfy its judgment. “Any such action will be fairly straightforward given the instant decision, including the Court's observations regarding the inadequacy of the Developer's capitalization . . . and the University may then be entitled to the additional discovery it presently seeks.” Id.
Wow. That’s some heavy dicta. First, the court never states what the rule is for veil piercing an LLC, so it is a pretty bold assertion to say veil-piercing will be “straightforward.” Is the sole test adequate capitalization? What does that mean? And what is that test? Well, the court gives us an explanation in footnote 22:
The Developer's status as an inadequately capitalized shell company is an ongoing demonstration of bad faith. LLCs are a legitimate corporate form, and the societal benefits of such entities are significant. Dickson testified that the use of such entities in transactions like this one is “typical[ ],” explaining that “single-asset entities are established as borrowers” so that “the borrower[ ] contains one asset,” the advantage from a “liability standpoint” being that “on a transaction of this size, the asset couldn't be pulled into bankruptcy.” Trial Tr. Day 7 AM at 49:25–50:7. Yet, even a single-asset entity must be capitalized to the extent necessary to satisfy its obligations to the project it was created to support. See Lawlor v. District of Columbia, 758 A.2d 964, 975 (D.C. 2000) (noting inadequate capitalization as factor in determining whether a given entity's corporate form should be respected). Consequently, abuse of the corporate form to render a company judgment-proof is impermissible and reflects bad faith.
Um, no. First, the LLC is not a corporate form. And an entity not being able to pay its debts is not, in and of itself, a showing of bad faith. Otherwise, what’s the point of limited liability? The court seems to think that being judgment proof because of a lack of funds is not allowed. But it is specifically allowed. If there is fraud or deception, that is not allowed. But an inability to pay the bills is not, alone, at all improper. It is unfortunate, and perhaps awful, but it is not improper.
Ultimately, it may be that veil piercing could be justified under DC law, but first, we’d need to know what that law is. And it should be clear that it is LLC-veil-piercing law that is to be applied, and not the “corporate” veil piercing this court has apparently relied upon. Once again, I will repeat my call for courts to state specifically the law (and the test) they are applying in LLC-veil-piercing cases, explain why the factors of the test are appropriate in the LLC setting, and then apply that test.
Instead, the court suggests that veil piercing is essentially inevitable, which could have a strong role in forcing a settlement. This language amounts to phantom veil piercing. The court never stated a veil-piercing test, never ran the test, and yet, there it is: the specter of a pierced limited liability veil.
The court seemed frustrated with the developer, and that may be well founded. Maybe the developer committed fraud. Maybe the developer and other representatives made binding promises that should make them all guarantors. The case also suggests that there may be an argument for enterprise liability among some of the entities mentioned. And those are all issues that should have been considered. But none of them are veil piercing claims, and if the court is going to go down that road, the court needs to be more precise to ensure justice and equity prevail.
Wednesday, August 23, 2017
So, don't. Over at Above the Law, Prof. Kerriann Stout wrote 10 Things That Will Absolutely Piss Off Your Law Professor. She notes it is not an exhaustive list, but it is a good one and worth a read. This year, I added a new bit of information to my first day of class about how to interact with me about absences and workload. (I often discuss this in class at some point, but I don't recall ever doing it in both of my classes on day one.)
So, here's the deal. In my classes, I allow a certain number of absences (depending on number of credits and days we meet) without questions for personal reasons, interviews, etc. Here is an example of my attendance clause:
Students are expected to attend every class. Students are permitted to miss up to four classes for other obligations without explanation. This number is to include virtually all absences, including sickness, out-of-town interviews, etc. (but does not include classes missed for religious observance). If classes in excess of four are missed, to avoid withdrawal from the course, a written explanation may be required, including the reason for missing additional classes, the student’s plan to ensure the materials covered in the missed classes will be learned, and the reasons the student should be permitted to continue in the course. The policy is designed to facilitate learning, not impose hardship.
This way, students can plan ahead (and most do), and they can make decisions as professionals must about how they prioritize their time. Despite this policy, every year I have students email me to say they will (or did) miss class because they:
- Have to finish a paper for another class
- Have a law review note or moot court brief due
- Must study for a midterm
- Need to prepare for a clinic meeting/hearing
- Plan to attend an out-of-town football game/baseball game/concert
Again, I do not require nor do I ask for an explanation (unless it is related to excess absences, and no one has tried these reasons for that). My new tack is to explain:
I am interested in you as a human being, so please do not hear me saying I don't care what you do or why. And if you need help, you should ask. And if you can't ask me, talk to our Dean of Students or Dean of Academic Affairs or ask a friend. There is help available; please let us help. What I am about to tell you is not about when you need help. It is about what you say when you can't make it to class or be prepared for that class and about what you say to me (or my colleagues) in communicating that information.
Though I do not require it, I appreciate it when you tell me you cannot be in class on a given day. I am am fine if you very rarely request a pass for the day because you are not prepared. But I don't ask you for reasons for your absence or why you are not prepared. So, if you volunteer that information and tell me that you have to miss class or are unprepared because you need to finish a paper for another class, that says to me, "I have prioritized another class over yours." You may not mean to be saying that, but it is in many ways what you are saying.
I understand that you may be sharing to be honest. I appreciate that, and if I were to ask you, honesty is the best policy. I get that you might be trying to communicate that you are not missing my class for a frivolous reason. Okay, but you have still told me your priorities. I also understand that you might want some level of absolution. I can't and shouldn't give you that. We all have a lot to do, and sometimes life gets in the way of life, so we must make tough choices. That does not make me mad. Just don't volunteer that you made such a choice when you don't need to volunteer that you did.
I raise this for you not because it really upsets me. It doesn't. It may annoy me on a given day, but I can handle it. But it really, really irritates some of my colleagues, even if they don't tell you. And it is an incredibly risky thing to share with a client or boss, who definitely don't want to hear someone else's work is more important than their's.
So, be honest when asked, and take responsibility for your actions. Don't share information unnecessarily. Don't seek external absolution from professors, or clients, or bosses. I am here to teach, and I am here to help you learn, and grow, and find the resources you need to thrive. But I am not here to make you feel better about not doing the work I have asked of you.
Friday, August 18, 2017
Jodi D. Taylor, a shareholder at the law firm Baker Donelson and a former classmate of mine, recently won the firm’s Work-Life Warrior Award. “Baker Donelson established the Work-Life Warrior Award to honor an attorney in the Firm who demonstrates an ongoing commitment to excellence in maintaining a healthy work-life balance or has advocated on behalf of work-life balance issues for the benefit of others.” Jodi graciously accepted my request to answer a few questions for this post, as part of the series I am doing on law and wellness.
The interview is below the break.
Tuesday, August 15, 2017
Earlier this week, Professor Bainbridge posted California court completely bollixes up business law nomenclature, discussing Keith Paul Bishop's post on Curci Investments, LLC v. Baldwin, Cal. Ct. App. Case No. G052764 (Aug. 10, 2017). The good professor, noting (with approval) what he calls my possibly "Ahabian" obsession with courts and their LLC references, says that "misusing terminology leads to misapplied doctrine." Darn right.
To illustrate his point, let's discuss a 2016 Colorado case that manages to highlight how both Colorado and Utah have it wrong. As is so often the case, the decision turns on incorrectly merging doctrine from one entity type (the corporation) into another (the LLC) without acknowledging or explaining why that makes sense. To the court's credit, they got the choice of law right, applying the internal affairs doctrine to use Utah law for veil piercing a Utah LLC, even though the case was in a Colorado court.
After correctly deciding to use Utah law, the court then went down a doctrinally weak path. Here we go:
Marquis is a Utah LLC. (ECF No. 1 ¶ 7.) Utah courts apply traditional corporate veil-piercing principles to LLCs. See, e.g., Lodges at Bear Hollow Condo. Homeowners Ass'n, Inc. v. Bear Hollow Restoration, LLC, 344 P.3d 145, 150 (Utah Ct. App. 2015). The basic veil-piercing analysis requires two steps:The first part of the test, often called the formalities requirement, requires the movant to show such unity of interest and ownership that the separate personalities of the corporation and the individual no longer exist. The second part of the test, often called the fairness requirement, requires the movant to show that observance of the corporate form would sanction a fraud, promote injustice, or condone an inequitable result.
The failure of a limited liability company to observe formalities relating to the exercise of its powers or management of its activities and affairs is not a ground for imposing liability on a member or manager of the limited liability company for a debt, obligation, or other liability of the limited liability company.
(1) undercapitalization of a one-[person] corporation; (2) failure to observe corporate formalities; (3) nonpayment of dividends; (4) siphoning of corporate funds by the dominant stockholder; (5) nonfunctioning of other officers or directors; (6) absence of corporate records; [and] (7) the use of the corporation as a facade for operations of the dominant stockholder or stockholders....
The Marquis Properties court skips actually applying the test saying simply that an SEC investigation report was sufficient to allow veil piercing. The court determined that an SEC report establishes that sole member of the LLC used the entity "to create the illusion of profitable investments and thereby to enrich himself, with no ability or intent to honor" the LLC's obligations. "Given this, strictly respecting [the LLC's] corporate form [ed. note: UGH] would sanction [the member's] fraud." The Court then found that veil-piercing was appropriate to hold the member "jointly and severally liable for the amounts owed by" the LLC to the plaintiffs.
But veil piercing is both neither appropriate nor necessary in this case. In discussing the SEC report earlier in the case, the court found that "all elements of mail and wire fraud are present." I see nothing that would absolve either the LLC as an entity of liability for the fraud and I see no reason why the member of the LLC would not be personally liable for the fraud he committed purportedly on behalf of the LLC and for his own benefit.
This case illustrates another problem with veil piercing: both courts and lawyers are too willing to jump to veil piercing when simple fraud will do. This case illustrates clearly that fraud was evident, and fraud should be sufficient grounds for the plaintiffs to recover from the individual committing fraud. That means the entire veil piercing discussion should be treated as dicta. The entity form did not create this problem, and the entity form does not need to be disregarded, at least as far as I can tell, to allow plaintiffs to recover fully. Before even considering veil piercing, a court should be able to state clearly why veil piercing is necessary to make the plaintiff whole. Otherwise, you end up with bad case law that can lead to bad doctrine, which leads to inefficient courts and markets.
Oh, and while I'm at it, Westlaw needs to get their act together, too. The Westlaw summary and headnotes say "limited liability corporation (LLC)" five times in connection with this case. Come on, y'all.
Monday, August 14, 2017
Former BLPB editor Steve Bradford has posted a new paper adding to his wonderful series of articles on crowdfunding (on which I and so many others rely in our crowdfunding work). This article, entitled "Online Arbitration as a Remedy for Crowdfunding Fraud" (and forthcoming in the Florida State University Law Review), focuses on a hot topic in many areas of lawyering--online dispute resolution, or ODR. Steve brings the discussion to bear on his crowdfunding work. Specifically, he suggests online arbitration as an efficacious way of resolving allegations of fraud in crowdfunding. Here's the abstract:
It is now legal to see securities to the general public in unregistered, crowdfunded offerings. But offerings pursuant to the new federal crowdfunding exemption pose a serious risk of fraud. The buyers will be mostly small, unsophisticated investors, the issuers will be mostly small startups about whom little is known, and crowdfunded offerings lack some of the protections available in registered offerings. Some of the requirements of the exemption may reduce the incidence of fraud, but there will undoubtedly be fraudulent offerings.
An effective antifraud remedy is needed to compensate investors and help deter wrongdoers. But, because of the small dollar amounts involved, neither individual litigation nor class actions will usually be feasible; the cost of suing will usually exceed the expected recovery. Federal and state securities regulators are also unlikely to focus their limited enforcement resources on small crowdfunding offerings. A more effective remedy is needed.
Arbitration is cheaper, but even ordinary arbitration will often be too expensive for the small amounts invested in crowdfunding. In this article, I attempt to design a simplified, cost-effective arbitration remedy to deal with crowdfunding fraud. The arbitration remedy should be unilateral; crowdfunding issuers should be obligated to arbitrate, but not investors. Crowdfunding arbitration should be online, with the parties limited to written submissions. But it should be public, and arbitrators should be required to publish their findings. The arbitrators should be experts on both crowdfunding and securities law, and they should take an active, inquisitorial role in developing the evidence. Finally, all of the investors in an offering should be able to consolidate their claims into an arbitration class action.
Although I haven't yet read the paper (which was just posted this morning, it seems), Steve's idea totally makes sense to me on so many levels. Among other things, ODR has a history in e-commerce and social media, two front-runners and foundations of crowdfunding. Also, the dispute resolution expense issue that Steve alludes to in the abstract is real. It has been raised by a number of us, including by me in this draft paper, in which I assert, among other things:
Prosecutors and regulators may not be willing or able to devote financial and human resources to enforcement efforts absent statutory or regulatory incentives or extraordinary policy reasons for doing so . . . . Individual funders also are unlikely to bring private actions or even engage alternative dispute resolution since the cost of vindicating their rights easily could exceed their invested money and time, although the availability of treble damages (often a statutory right for willful violations of consumer protection statutes) or other extraordinary remedies may change the calculus somewhat.
. . . [C]lass actions tend to be procedurally complex—difficult to get in front of a court—and may not be available in some jurisdictions. Moreover, the prospects for recovery are unknown and, based on recent information from U.S. securities class action litigation, financial compensation to individual members of the plaintiff class is likely to be relatively insignificant in dollar value and in relationship to losses suffered, even if the aggregate amount of damages paid by the defendant is relatively high . . . . Accordingly, class action litigation also may be of limited utility in bringing successful legal claims in the crowdfunding context.
This will be an area for much further thought as the crowdfunding adventure continues . . . .
Wednesday, August 2, 2017
Good morning from gorgeous Belize. I hope to see some of you this weekend at SEALS. A couple of weeks ago, I posted about the compliance course I recently taught. I received quite a few emails asking for my syllabus and teaching materials. I am still in the middle of grading but I thought I would provide some general advice for those who are considering teaching a similar course. I taught thinking about the priorities of current employers and the skills our students need.
1) Picking materials is hard- It's actually harder if you have actually worked in compliance, as I have, and still consult, as I do from time to time. I have all of the current compliance textbooks but didn't find any that suited my needs. Shameless plug- I'm co-authoring a compliance textbook to help fill the gap. I wanted my students to have the experience they would have if they were working in-house and had to work with real documents. I found myself either using or getting ideas from many primary source materials from the Society of Corporate Compliance and Ethics, the Institute of Privacy Professionals, DLA Piper, the Federal Sentencing Guidelines for Organizational Defendants, policy statements from various governmental entities in the US (the SEC, DOJ Banamex case, and state regulators), and abroad (UK Serious Frauds Office and Privacy Office). Students also compared CSR reports, looked at NGO materials, read the codes of conducts of the guest speakers who came in, and looked at 10-Ks, the Carbon Disclosure Project, and other climate change documents for their companies. I also had students watch YouTube videos pretending that they went to CLEs and had to write a memo to the General Counsel so that s/he could update the board on the latest developments in healthcare compliance and risk assessments.
2) This should be a 3-credit course for it to be an effective skills course- My grand vision was for guest speakers to come in on Mondays for an hour and then I would lecture for the remaining time or I would lecture for two hours on Monday and then students would have simulations on Wednesday.This never happened. Students became so engaged that the lecturers never finished in an hour. We were always behind. Simulations always ran over.
3) Don't give too much reading- I should have known better. I have now taught at three institutions at various tiers and at each one students have admitted- no, actually bragged- that they don't do the reading. Some have told me that they do the reading for my classes because I grade for class participation, but I could actually see for my compliance course how they could do reasonably well without doing all of the reading, which means that I gave too much. I actually deliberately provided more than they needed in some areas (especially in the data privacy area) because I wanted them to build a library in case they obtained an internship or job after graduation and could use the resources. When I started out in compliance, just knowing where to look was half the battle. My students have 50 state surveys in employment law, privacy and other areas that will at least give them a head start.
4) Grading is hard- Grading a skills course is inherently subjective and requires substantive feedback to be effective. 40% of the grade is based on a class project, which was either a presentation to the board of directors or a training to a group of employees. Students had their choice of topic and audience but had to stay within their industry and had the entire 6-week term to prepare. Should I give more credit to the team who trained the sales force on off-label marketing for pharmaceuticals because the class acting as the sales force (and I) were deliberately disrespectful (as some sales people would be in real life because this type of training would likely limit their commissions)? This made their training harder. Should I be tougher on the group that trained the bored board on AML, since one student presenter was in banking for years? I already know the answers to these rhetorical questions. On individual projects, I provide comments as though I am a general counsel, a board member, or a CEO depending on the assignment. This may mean that the commentary is "why should I care, tell me about the ROI up front." This is not language that law students are used to, but it's language that I have tried to instill throughout the course. I gave them various versions of the speech, "give me less kumbaya, we need to care about the slave labor in the factories, and less consumers care about company reputation, and more statistics and hard numbers to back it up." Some of you may have seen this recent article about United and the "non-boycott, which validates what I have been blogging about for years. If it had come out during the class, I would have made students read it because board members would have read it and real life compliance officers would have had to deal with it head on.
5) Be current but know when to stop- I love compliance and CSR. For the students, it's just a class although I hope they now love it too. I found myself printing out new materials right before class because I thought they should see this latest development. I'm sure that what made me think of myself as cutting edge and of the moment made me come across to them as scattered and disorganized because it wasn't on the syllabus.
6) Use guest speakers whenever possible- Skype them in if you have to. Nothing gives you credibility like having someone else say exactly what you have already said.
If you have any questions, let me know. I will eventually get back to those of you who asked for materials, but hopefully some of these links will help. If you are teaching a course or looking at textbook, send me feedback on them so that I can consider it as I work on my own. Please email me at email@example.com.
Next week, I will blog about how (not) to teach a class on legal issues for start ups, entrepreneurs, and small businesses, which I taught last semester.
Monday, July 24, 2017
Hot Off the Press: Russell and Heminway on Representing the Organizational Client on Environmental Matters
My good friend and long-time mentor Irma Russell and I wrote a chapter for the recently released ABA book, Ethics and the Environment: A Lawyer's Guide. Irma also is a co-editor of the book (with Vicki Wright). In our joint contribution, the chapter entitled "Representing the Organizational Client on Environmental Matters," Irma and I cover issues involving professional responsibility, corporate governance, and environmental compliance. Guess which part was my primary responsibility . . . ?!) Covering some 37 pages of the 242-page book, the rules we cover and the observations we make are fairly wide-ranging. We hope, as we noted in our conclusion to the chapter, that we supply legal counsel representing corporations and other organizations with "foundational tools to assist them in providing advisory and advocacy-oriented services to organizational clients in the environmental law context." Irma and I received our copies last week. The book soon will be available through the ABA and other outlets.
Wednesday, July 19, 2017
Last year, I was asked to contribute to a symposium on law and entrepreneurship hosted at the University of North Carolina. Although I had to Skype in for my presentation from Little Rock, Arkansas (where I had just given a separate, unrelated CLE presentation), the panel to which I was assigned was fabulous. Great scholars, with great ideas.
For my contribution to the symposium, I chose to reflect on the unfulfilled promise of the potentially mutually beneficial relationship between an entrepreneur and a business finance lawyer. I recently posted the published work memorializing my thoughts on the topic, featured this spring with several other articles from the symposium in a dedicated edition of the North Carolina Law Review. The brief abstract for my article follows:
Entrepreneurs have the capacity to add value to the economy and the community. Business lawyers—including business finance lawyers—want to help entrepreneurs achieve their objectives. Despite incentives to a symbiotic relationship, however, entrepreneurs and business finance lawyers are not always the best of friends. This Article offers several approaches to bridging this gap between entrepreneurs and business finance lawyers.
My hope in writing this article was to infuse some energy into conversations about the role of business finance and business finance lawyers in the start-up and small business environment. Too many principals of emergent businesses with whom I interact think that business entity choice and formation are divorced--wholly or in major part--from finance. Of course, governance and tax matters (as well as, e.g., intellectual property and employment law concerns) are key. But my personal view is that entrepreneurs and promoters of new businesses should map out their plan for financing firms from the start and take that plan into account in choosing the form of legal entity for those businesses. I may be fighting an uphill battle on this (for a variety of reasons, mostly relating to the limited resource environment in which start-ups and small businesses exist), but I hope the article gives both clients and lawyers in this space something to consider, at the very least.