Friday, April 28, 2017
We are in the middle of the final exam period, so this post will be short.
A friend of mine recently told me about a situation where he had been cheated out of a few thousand dollars. A clear contract was involved, and based on the facts I was told, the other party seems obviously in the wrong.
These situations, even if clear from the legal side, are often not worth pursuing through litigation in our current U.S. system. As most readers surely know, in the U.S. parties generally have to pay their own lawyers regardless of the outcome. In some situations, the lawyers may take the case on contingency, but most lawyers I know will not take a contingency case where the maximum recovery is a few thousand dollars. Maybe small claims court would be appropriate, but the learning and time costs involved may outweigh the potential recovery.
Perhaps this is as it should be. Perhaps we want parties to settle these smaller disputes outside the courts.
But, especially when the party in the wrong is much larger, and especially when the wrong is quite clear, it seems like we might want the courts involved to prevent this type of bad action from going without a remedy. Of course, class actions may be possible in some, though certainly not all, circumstances.
The law could make these situations more worthy of pursuit. Full expectation damages, that would put the harmed party where she would have been if the contract had been properly carried out, should consider not only legal fees but also the time and emotional energy expended to bring the claim. I do know that courts sometimes shift legal fees in egregious situations, but I think this is pretty rare, and I don't think I have ever heard of a situation where the plaintiff was reimbursed for her time and emotional energy expended in bringing the case. However, isn't that what true expectation damages would require? Without the breach, the plaintiff would not have spent time, energy, and money pursuing the claim. Recovery for this type of damage would also discourage breach, as the defendant would stand to lose significantly more than if he just carried out the contract as agreed.
That said, I do see how this could be abused by overeager attorneys, so I imagine it would have to be used somewhat sparingly and only in clear cases.
Monday, April 17, 2017
As Haskell earlier announced here at the BLPB, The first U.S. benefit corporation went public back in February--just before publication of my paper from last summer's 8th Annual Berle Symposium (about which I and other BLPB participants contemporaneously wrote here, here, and here). Although I was able to mark the closing of Laureate Education, Inc.'s public offering in last-minute footnotes, my paper for the symposium treats the publicly held benefit corporation as a future likelihood, rather than a reality. Now, the actual experiment has begun. It is time to test the "visioning" in this paper, which I recently posted to SSRN. Here is the abstract.
Benefit corporations have enjoyed legislative and, to a lesser extent, popular success over the past few years. This article anticipates what recently (at the eve of its publication) became a reality: the advent of a publicly held U.S. benefit corporation — a corporation with public equity holders that is organized under a specialized U.S. state statute requiring corporations to serve both shareholder wealth aims and social or environmental objectives. Specifically, the article undertakes to identify and comment on the structure and function of U.S. benefit corporations and the unique litigation risks to which a publicly held U.S. benefit corporation may be subject. In doing so, the article links the importance of a publicly held benefit corporation's public benefit purpose to litigation risk management from several perspectives. In sum, the distinctive features of the benefit corporation form, taken together with key attendant litigation risks for publicly held U.S. benefit corporations (in each case, as identified in this article), confirm and underscore the key role that corporate purpose plays in benefit corporation law.
Ultimately, this article brings together a number of things I wanted to think and write about, all in one paper. While many of the observations and conclusions may seem obvious, I found the exploration helpful to my thinking about benefit corporation law and litigation risk management. Perhaps you will, too . . . .
April 17, 2017 in Anne Tucker, Business Associations, Corporate Governance, Corporations, Current Affairs, Haskell Murray, Joan Heminway, Litigation, Management, Social Enterprise | Permalink | Comments (0)
Tuesday, March 14, 2017
A new case, out just yesterday from the Southern District of Ohio, makes a mess of LLC veil piercing law. It appears that the legal basis put forth by the court in granting a motion to dismiss a veil piercing claim was probably right, but the statement of veil piercing law was not quite there.
The case is ACKISON SURVEYING, LLC, Plaintiff, v. FOCUS FIBER SOLUTIONS, LLC, et al., Defendants., No. 2:15-CV-2044, 2017 WL 958620, at *1 (S.D. Ohio Mar. 13, 2017). Here are the parties: the defendant is FTE Networks, Inc. (FTE), which filed a motion to dismiss claiming a failure to state a claim. FTE is the parent company of another defendant, Focus Fiber Solutions, LLC (Focus). The plaintiff, Ackison Surveying, LLC (Ackison) filed a number of claims against Focus, added an alter ego/veil piercing claim against FTE. Thus, Ackison is, among other things, seeking to pierce the veil of an LLC (Focus). Focus appears to be a Pennsylvania LLC, based on a search here.
Pennsylvania law provides the liability cannot be imposed on a member of an LLC for failing to observe formalities. The law states:
The failure of a limited liability partnership, limited partnership, limited liability limited partnership, electing partnership or 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 partner, member or manager of the entity for a debt, obligation or other liability of the entity.
(1) grossly inadequate capitalization,(2) failure to observe corporate formalities,(3) insolvency of the debtor corporation at the time the debt is incurred,(4) [the parent] holding [itself] out as personally liable for certain corporate obligations,(5) diversion of funds or other property of the company property [ ],(6) absence of corporate records, and (7) the fact that the corporation was a mere facade for the operations of the [parent company].
Wednesday, February 8, 2017
Prominent corporate governance, corporate finance and economics professors face off in opposing amici briefs filed in DFC Global Corp. v. Muirfield Value Partners LP, appeal pending before the Delaware Supreme Court. The Chancery Daily newsletter, described it, in perhaps my favorite phrasing of legal language ever: "By WWE standards it may be a cage match of flyweight proportions, but by Delaware corporate law standards, a can of cerebral whoopass is now deemed open."
Point #1: Master Class in Persuasive Legal Writing: Framing the Issue
Reversal Framing: "This appeal raises the question whether, in appraisal litigation challenging the acquisition price of a company, the Court of Chancery should defer to the transaction price when it was reached as a result of an arm’s-length auction process."
Affirmance Framing: "This appeal raises the question whether, in a judicial appraisal determining the fair value of dissenting stock, the Court of Chancery must automatically award the merger price where the transaction appeared to involve an arm’s length buyer in a public sale."
Point #2: Summary of Brief Supporting Fair Market Valuation: Why the Court of Chancery should defer to the deal price in an arm's length auction
- It would reduce litigation and simply the process.
- The Chancery Court Judges are ill-equipped for the sophisticated cash-flow analysis (ouch, that's a rough point to make).
- Appraisal does not properly incentivize the use of arm's length auctions if they are not sufficiently protected/respected.
- Appraisal seeks the false promise of THE right price, when price in this kind of market (low competition, unique goods) can best be thought of as a range. The inquiry should be whether the transaction price is within the range of a fair price. A subset of this argument (and the point of the whole brief) is that the auction process is the best evidence of fair price.
- Appraisal process is flawed because the court discounted the market price in its final valuation. The argument is that if the transaction price is not THE right price, then it should not be a factor in coming up with THE right price.
- Appraisal process is flawed because the final valuation relies upon expert opinions that are created in a litigation vacuum, sealed-off from market pressure of "real" valuations.
- The volatility in the appraisal market—the outcome of the litigation and the final price—distorts the auction process. Evidence of this is the creation of appraisal closing conditions.
Point #3: Summary of Brief Supporting Appraisal Actions: Why the Court of Chancery should reject a rule that the transaction price—in an arm's length auction—is conclusive evidence of fair price in appraisal proceedings.
- Statutory interpretation requires the result. Delaware Section 262 states that judges will "take into account all factors" in determining appraisal action prices. To require the deal price to be the "fair" price, eviscerates the statutory language and renders it null.
- The Delaware Legislature had an opportunity to revise Section 262—and did so in 2015, narrowing the scope of eligible appraisal transactions and remedies—but left intact the "all factors" language.
- The statutory appraisal remedy is separate from the common law/fiduciary obligations of directors in transactions so a transaction without a conflict of interest and even cured by shareholder vote could still contain fact-specific conditions that would make an appraisal remedy appropriate.
- There are appropriate judicial resources to handle the appraisal actions because of the expertise of the Court of Chancery, which is buttressed by the ability to appoint a neutral economic expert to assist with valuations and to adopt procedures and standards for expert valuations in appraisal cases.
- The threat of the appraisal action creates a powerful ex ante benefit to transaction price because it helps bolster and ensure that the transaction price is fair and without challenge.
- Appraisal actions serve as a proxy for setting a credible reserve in the auction price, which buyers and sellers may be prohibited from doing as a result of their fiduciary duties.
- Any distortion of the THE market by appraisal actions is a feature, not a bug. All legal institutions operate along side markets and exert influences, situations that are acceptable with fraud and torts. Any affect that appraisal actions create have social benefits and are an intended benefit.
- Let corporations organized/formed in Delaware enjoy the benefits of being a Delaware corporation by giving them full access to the process and expertise of the Delaware judiciary.
My thinking in the area more closely aligns with the "keep appraisal action full review" camp on the theory--both policy and economic. Also the language in the supporting/affirmance brief is excellent (they describe the transaction price argument as a judicial straight jacket!). I must admit, however, that I am sympathetic to the resources and procedural criticisms raised by the reversal brief. That there is no way for some corporate transactions, ex ante, to prevent a full scale appraisal action litigation—a process that is costly and time consuming—is a hard pill to swallow. I can imagine the frustration of the lawyers explaining to a BOD that there may be no way to foreclose this outcome. Although I hesitate to put it in these terms, my ultimate conclusion would require more thinking about whether the benefits of appraisal actions outlined in the affirmance brief outweigh the costs to the judiciary and to the parties as outlined in the reversal brief. These are all points that I invite readers to weigh in on the comments--especially those with experience litigating these cases.
I also want to note the rather nuanced observation in the affirmance brief about the distinction between statutory standards and common law/fiduciary duty. This important intellectual distinction about the source of the power and its intent is helpful in appraisal actions, but also in conflict of interest/safe harbor under Delaware law evaluations.
For the professors out there, if anyone covers appraisal actions in an upper-level course or has students writing on the topic-- these two briefs distill the relevant case law and competing theories with considerable force.
Wednesday, January 25, 2017
Spoiler alert: wrongful refusal of demand and bad faith standards are the same in recent Delaware Court of Chancery case: Andersen v. Mattel, Inc., C.A. No. 11816-VCMR (Del. Ch. Jan. 19, 2017, Op by VC Montgomery-Reeves).
But sometimes a reminder that the law is the same and can be clearly stated is worth a blog post in its own right. Professors can use this as a hypo or case note and those in the trenches can update case citations to a 2017 (and 2016) case.
In Andersen v. Mattel, Inc., VC Montgomery-Reeves dismissed a derivative suit, holding that plaintiff did not prove wrongful refusal of pre-suit demand. The derivative action claimed that the Mattel board of directors refused to bring suit to recover up to $11.5 million paid in severance/consulting fees to the former chairman and chief executive officer who left in the wake of a falling stock price. Plaintiff challenged disclosure discrepancies over whether Stockton resigned or was terminated and the resulting entitlement to severance payments. Mattel's board of directors unanimously rejected the demand after consultation with outside counsel, 24 witness interviews and a review of approximately 12,400 documents.
The relied upon case law is unchanged, but the clear recitation of the law is worth noting:
Where, as here, a plaintiff makes demand on the board of directors, the plaintiff concedes that the board is disinterested and independent for purposes of responding to the demand. The effect of such concession is that the decision to refuse demand is treated as any other disinterested and independent decision of the board—it is subject to the business judgment rule. Accordingly, the only issues the Court must examine in analyzing whether the board’s demand refusal was proper are “the good faith and reasonableness of its investigation. (internal citations omitted)
To successfully challenge the good faith and reasonableness of the board's investigation, Plaintiff's complaint was required to state particularized facts raising a reasonable doubt that:
(1) the board’s decision to deny the demand was consistent with its duty of care to act on an informed basis, that is, was not grossly negligent; or (2) the board acted in good faith, consistent with its duty of loyalty. Otherwise, the decision of the board is entitled to deference as a valid exercise of its business judgment.
First, Plaintiff challenged the board's demand refusal on the grounds that they did not disclose the investigation report or the supporting documents in conjunction with the demand refusal. The Court was unpersuaded given that Plaintiff had the right to seek the report and records through a Section 220 demand, but chose not to do so.
Second, Plaintiff challenged the board's demand refusal on the grounds that it failed to form a special committee. Absent any facts that the Mattel board considering the demand was not independent, there was no requirement for the board to form a special committee.
Third, and final, Plaintiff challenged the board's good faith in rejecting the demand on the grounds that Stockton's employment was not voluntarily terminated. The court cautioned that:
[T]he question is not whether the [b]oard’s conclusion was wrong; the question is whether the [b]oard intentionally acted in disregard of [Mattel’s] best interests in deciding not to pursue the litigation the Plaintiff demanded. [T]he fact that the [b]oard’s justifications for refusing [the] demand fall within ‘the bounds of reasonable judgment’ is fatal to [the] claim that the refusal was made in bad faith. (citing to Friedman v. Maffei, (Del. Ch. Apr. 13, 2016))
Francis Pileggi at the excellent Delaware Corporate and Commercial Litigation Blog first brought this case to my attention. Practitioners and Professors alike should be certain to include his blog on your weekly round up. He is a sure source of concise and insightful summaries of the latest Delaware court developments.
Tuesday, January 17, 2017
Here we go again. The Oregon Federal District Court has a rule with an incorrect reference to LLCs on the books:
In diversity actions, any party that is a limited liability corporation (L.L.C.), a limited liability partnership (L.L.P.), or a partnership must, in the disclosure statement required by Fed. R. Civ. P. 7.1, list those states from which the owners/members/partners of the L.L.C., L.L.P., or partnership are citizens. If any owner/member/partner of the L.L.C., L.L.P., or partnership is another L.L.C., L.L.P., or partnership, then the disclosure statement must also list those states from which the owners/members/partners of the L.L.C., L.L.P., or partnership are citizens.
The certification requirements of LR 7.1-1 are broader than those established in Fed. R. Civ. P. 7.1. The Ninth Circuit has held that, “[L]ike a partnership, an LLC is a citizen of every state of which its owners/members/partners are citizens.” Johnson v. Columbia Properties Anchorage, LP, 437 F.3d 894, 899 (9th Cir. 2006). Early state citizenship disclosure will help address jurisdictional issues. Therefore, the disclosure must identify each and every state for which any owner/member/partner is a citizen. The disclosure does not need to include names of any owner/member/partner, nor does it need to indicate the number of owners/members/partners from any particular state.
For federal law purposes, it appears that the rule has excluded LLCs, despite the intent (and likely specific purpose) of the rule. Interestingly, Oregon law, has extended "unless context requires otherwise" the concept of LLCs to apply to partnership and corporate law. Oregon law provides:
Unless the context otherwise requires, throughout Oregon Revised Statutes:
(1) Wherever the term “person” is defined to include both a corporation and a partnership, the term “person” shall also include a limited liability company.(2) Wherever a section of Oregon Revised Statutes applies to both “partners” and “directors,” the section shall also apply:(a) In a limited liability company with one or more managers, to the managers of the limited liability company.(b) In a limited liability company without managers, to the members of the limited liability company.(3) Wherever a section of Oregon Revised Statutes applies to both “partners” and “shareholders,” the section shall also apply to members of a limited liability company.
Monday, December 26, 2016
The end of the calendar year brings many things--among others: the holidays (and I hope you have enjoyed and are enjoying them), the release of the last Oscar-contender movies, and the publication of oh-so-many "top ten" lists.
Apropos of the last of those three, I admit to being a bit proud, in a perverse sort of way, about spotting a "top ten" and commenting on it here on the BLPB. Back in May and June, I blogged about consumer litigation against Starbucks (my daughter's employer) involving coffee--too much ice, too hot, etc. Apparently, those types of legal actions are among the "Top Ten Most Ridiculous Lawsuits of 2016." Specifically, two of those lawsuits against Starbucks (the one for too much ice and another alleging too much steamed milk) are #1 on the list. Another consumer suit takes the #2 spot--a legal action asserting that a lip balm manufacturer's packaging is misleading (specifically, making customers beehive there is more product in the tube than there actually is). I continue to maintain (while acknowledging that consumer class action litigation can be useful when employed in cases that present a true danger to the consuming public), as I noted in my May post, that there are better ways to handle customer complaints.
Back in the spring, Weil, Gotshal shared some observations on litigation trends. Many of the underlying matters on which the co-authors of the report comment remain unresolved, and many involve actual or potential business litigation (including consumer litigation involving supply-chain-related or False Claims Act allegations). Certainly, a new U.S. Supreme Court appointee may make a difference in business law cases accepted by the Court this year . . . .
What will 2017 bring in business litigation? Any predictions? Now is the time to stake your claim!
Wednesday, September 14, 2016
Last spring, in the wake of Justice Scalia's passing, I blogged about Justice Scalia's final business law case: Americold Realty Trust v. ConAgra Ltd. The oral argument signaled that the Court's preference for a formalistic, bright line test that asked whether the entity involved was an unincorporated entity, in which case the citizenship of its members controlled the question of diversity, or whether it was formed as an corporation, in which a different test would apply. The Supreme Court issued its unanimous (8-0) opinion in March, 2016 holding that the citizenship of an unincorporated entity depends on the citizenship of all of its members. Because Americold was organized as a real estate investment trust under Maryland law, its shareholders are its members and determine (in this case, preclude) diversity jurisdiction.
S.I. Strong, the Manley O. Hudson Professor of Law at the University of Missouri, has a forthcoming article, Congress and Commercial Trusts: Dealing with Diversity Jurisdiction Post-Americold, forthcoming in Florida Law Review. The article addresses the corporate constitutional jurisprudential questions of how can and should the Supreme Court treat business entities. What is the appropriate role of substance and form in business law? Her article offers a decisive reply:
Commercial trusts are one of the United States’ most important types of business organizations, holding trillions of dollars of assets and operating nationally and internationally as a “mirror image” of the corporation. However, commercial trusts remain underappreciated and undertheorized in comparison to corporations, often as a result of the mistaken perception that commercial trusts are analogous to traditional intergenerational trusts or that corporations reflect the primary or paradigmatic form of business association.
The treatment of commercial trusts reached its nadir in early 2016, when the U.S. Supreme Court held in Americold Realty Trust v. ConAgra Foods, Inc. that the citizenship of a commercial trust should be equated with that of its shareholder-beneficiaries for purposes of diversity jurisdiction. Unfortunately, the sheer number of shareholder-beneficiaries in most commercial trusts (often amounting to hundreds if not thousands of individuals) typically precludes the parties’ ability to establish complete diversity and thus eliminates the possibility of federal jurisdiction over most commercial trust disputes. As a result, virtually all commercial trust disputes will now be heard in state court, despite their complexity, their impact on matters of national public policy and their effect on the domestic and global economies.
Americold will also result in differential treatment of commercial trusts and corporations for purposes of federal jurisdiction, even though courts and commentators have long recognized the functional equivalence of the two types of business associations. Furthermore, as this research shows, there is no theoretical justification for this type of unequal treatment.
This Article therefore suggests, as a normative proposition, that Congress override Americold and provide commercial trusts with access to federal courts in a manner similar to that enjoyed by corporations. This recommendation is the result of a rigorous interdisciplinary analysis of both the jurisprudential and practical problems created by Americold as a matter of trust law, procedural law and the law of incorporated and unincorporated business associations. The Article identifies two possible Congressional responses to Americold, one involving reliance on minimal diversity, as in cases falling under 28 U.S.C. §§1332(d) and 1369, and the other involving a statutory definition of the citizenship of commercial trusts similar to that used for corporations under 28 U.S.C. §1332(c). In so doing, this Article hopes to place commercial trusts and corporations on an equal footing and avoid the numerous negative externalities generated by the Supreme Court’s decision in Americold.
A special thanks to Professor Strong who read the blog's coverage of Americold and shared her scholarship with me.
Wednesday, July 27, 2016
Just in case you haven't gotten the message yet: Delaware law means fiduciary duty freedom of contract for alternative entities. In May 2016, the Delaware Chancery Court upheld a waiver of fiduciary duties in a master limited partnership. In Employees Retirement System of the City of St. Louis v. TC Pipelines GP, Inc., Vice Chancellor Glasscock upheld challenges to an interested transaction (sale of a pipeline asset to an affiliated entity) that was reviewed, according to the partnership agreement, by a special committee and found to be fair and reasonable. The waiver has been described as "ironclad" to give you a sense of how straight forward this decision was. No close call here.
Vice Chancellor Glasscock's letter opinion starts:
Delaware alternative entity law is explicitly contractual;1 it allows parties to eschew a corporate-style suite of fiduciary duties and rights, and instead to provide for modified versions of such duties and rights—or none at all—by contract. This custom approach can be value enhancing, but only if the parties are held to their bargain. Where equity holders in such entities have provided for such a custom menu of rights and duties by unambiguous contract language, that language must control judicial review of entity transactions, subject only to the cautious application of the implied covenant of good faith and fair dealing. Such is the case in the instant matter, which involves a master limited partnership (“MLP”) created with interested transactions involving the general partner as part of its business model.....
The Defendants point out that the [transaction] was approved by a special committee (the “Conflicts Committee”), which approval, in accordance with the partnership agreement, creates a conclusive presumption that the transaction is fair and reasonable to the Partnership. I find that the Conflicts Committee’s approval, in these circumstances, precludes judicial scrutiny of the substance of the transaction and grant the Defendants’ Motion.
Importantly, the contractual safe harbor for interested transactions established a process which, if followed, created a fair and reasonable transaction outside of judicial scrutiny and without recourse by the other partners. The court found that the partnership agreement precluded a good faith analysis of the Conflicts Committee's review and limited the court's review purely to matters of process.
The relevant portions of the Special Approval provision, importantly, are silent as to good faith.....According to the contractual language, the Special Approval of a duly constituted and fully informed Conflicts Committee is conclusive evidence that such transaction is fair and reasonable, and such approval is, therefore, preclusive of further judicial review. The Plaintiff does not allege that the Conflicts Committee was not duly constituted—that is, directors who are neither security holders nor employees or officers of the General Partner or its affiliates. Nor does the Plaintiff allege that the Conflicts Committee was not fully informed. Thus, the approval here is conclusive that the [transaction] is “fair and reasonable” to TCP. According to the explicit language of the LPA, when a conflicted transaction is deemed “fair and reasonable” by the terms of the agreement, such conflicted transaction is incapable of breaching the LPA.
Get the message? LOUD and CLEAR!
The opinion contains more analysis and excerpts of the relevant portions of partnership agreement. Look for an excerpt on this case in my ChartaCourse (electronic platform) Business Organizations casebook.
Friday, July 1, 2016
Today a number of athletes will compete in various track & field events in the Olympic Trials.
One of those events is the qualifying round of the 800m, and one of the 800m runners, Boris Berian, was recently caught in a legal dispute with his old shoe sponsor (Nike) because of his attempt to sign with a new shoe sponsor (New Balance). The story of the dispute even made The Wall Street Journal.
As I understand the timeline from the reporting and legal filings:
- After the 2012 season, Boris dropped out of his division II college (Adams State) to pursue pro-running.
- For a couple of years, Boris struggled to find world class success, and he worked at McDonald's.
- Boris didn't have a real breakthrough until mid-2015, when he ran the fastest time for an American that year.
- On June 17, 2015, shortly after his breakthrough race, Boris signed a short-term exclusive sponsorship deal with Nike (chosen from among many suitors).
- On December 31, 2015, the Nike-Boris contract expired, though the contract gave Nike the right to match any competitor's bona fide offer within 180 days of 12/31/15.
- On January 20, 2016, Boris' agent notified Nike than New Balance had made Boris a 3 year, $375,000 offer ($125,000 per year guaranteed).
- Nike's response to New Balance offer is disputed and at the center of a breach of contract lawsuit that Nike filed on April 29.
- Nike supposedly served Boris with notice of the lawsuit at a track meet.
- In short, Boris claimed that New Balance's $375,000 offer was guaranteed, while Nike's "match" was full of potential reductions. Nike claims that the contract they sent was simply a standard form. Nike claimed that guaranteed money is unusual in track contracts and Boris' agent had not shown proof of the lack of reductions in New Balance's offer, and that if the lack of reductions was proven, Nike would have matched those terms within the deadline.
- On June 7, a judge granted Nike's TRO, restraining Boris from competing in non-Nike gear until June 21.
- On June 22, a judge declined to extend the TRO and stated that he would rule on June 29.
- On June 23, Nike dropped its lawsuit (without prejudice), claiming that they wanted to "eliminate this distraction for Boris" given the upcoming Olympic Trials.
- On June 30, Boris Berian signed with New Balance.
In the fall of 2014, Robert Bird (UConn) and David Orozco (Florida State) published a nice short article in the MIT Sloan Management Review entitled Finding the Right Corporate Legal Strategy. This has been a key article in the growing Law & Strategy area. The article notes five main legal strategies; "The five, in order of least to greatest strategic impact, are: (1) avoidance, (2) compliance, (3) prevention, (4) value and (5) transformation."
This Nike v. Boris Berian situation, in my opinion, is an interesting example of the use of corporate legal strategy. In particular, Nike appears to be using litigation as a move for firm-wide value (#4 on the Bird & Orozco list).
Why did Nike sue? In my opinion, Nike likely sued not just because they believed Boris breached the contract, but also to send a message to its other athletes that Nike "plays hardball." This message may have been especially important given Kara Goucher's doping allegation against the Nike Oregon Project and its coach; a number of prized Nike athletes may have been watching Boris' situation and may have defected (right before the Olympics!) if Boris was treated with a light touch. Also, especially given that Boris claimed that he would rather sit out that run for Nike, perhaps Nike was simply trying to distract what could soon be a potential star for its competitor New Balance. While Nike has a number of track athletes with the star power of Boris, New Balance has a shallow bench of star track athletes and a good bit would ride on Boris' performance for NB. If Boris medals, especially with his McDonald's to track star story, that could be a huge deal for New Balance. Nike, on the other hand, has a absurd number of track stars with good stories and a high likelihood of medaling.
Why did Nike drop its lawsuit? I think the press was getting worse for Nike than Nike originally imagined. Also, perhaps the case was not resolving as quickly as Nike had guessed, and if Nike pursued the lawsuit into the Olympic Trials, the negative coverage may have exploded. That said, Nike must have known the coverage was going to be negative, so I imagine that factored into their original calculation, to some degree. Their lawyers might have gotten the impression that the judge was not going to rule in their favor when he decided against extending the TRO, so maybe Nike decided to try to win back some fans by dropping the lawsuit voluntarily. I agree with this author, eliminating the distraction for Boris was likely not Nike's main motivation, if so, they would have not sued him during the Olympic Trials build-up. As any runner knows, the months before a meet are much more important than the week before (at least as a physical matter). More likely, and perhaps unanticipated at the filing of the lawsuit, 19-year old Donavan Brazier of Texas A&M announced that he was turning pro just a few days before Nike dropped its lawsuit. Brazier, who had recently won the NCAA championships in the 800m in record time, was probably even a bigger signing target for Nike than Boris. By dropping the lawsuit, Nike may have been able to come off as altruistic to Brazier (saying something like - we had legal grounds to pursue the Boris lawsuit, but we want to do what is best for our current and former athletes). A few days after Nike dropped the lawsuit, Brazier signed with Nike. In addition, around the same time, Nike also signed another 800m star, Clayton Murphy. Both Braizer and Murphy were underclassmen and it was uncertain, until recently, whether they would turn pro. Not only did dropping the lawsuit against Boris likely help Nike in pursuing these two young athletes, but the recent strength of these athletes in the 800m made it possible that Boris would not even make the team, much less medal in Rio.
Personally, I think Boris is going to race well today (we will know in a few hours) and over the next few days, but maybe the stress of the legal battle took a toll. Brazier and Murphy and the entire field will both be tough, but the field will be a bit more open given that two-time Olympian Nick Symmonds scratched from the 800m Olympic Trials field with an injured ankle. Boris has the best qualifying time (1:43:34 v. 1:43:55), but Brazier has the best time this season (1:43:55 v. 1:44.20). Should be exciting to watch and now you know the legal background.
Finally, perhaps of interest to some readers, Boris Berian was using crowdfunding to pay for his legal defense. Boris even got this shout-out from Malcolm Gladwell on Twitter: "Nike earned 30 billion in 2015. Berian was flipping burgers at McDonalds two years ago. Isn't one bully in American public life enough?"
Update #1: In one of the biggest surprises of the Trials, Donavan Brazier was knocked out in the first round of the 800m, running roughly 5 big seconds slower than he did in the NCAA Championships. Boris Berian won his heat. Nike was diversified with Clayton Murphy who won his heat, and Nike also had four others who qualified for the next round in the 800.
Update #2: Boris Berian led his 800m semi-final from start to finish. Looked strong. Clayton Murphy won the second semi-final race, in a bit slower race, but he also looked strong. Finals are Monday.
Update #3: In the finals, Boris Berian grabbed the lead around 400m and held on until the final 10m or so. He placed second to Clayton Murphy (Nike) who out-kicked him. Charles Jock (Nike OTC) finished third. Those top three finishers will represent the US in Rio in the 800m.
Update #4: After getting 4th in one of his heats and needing to qualify on time rather than automatically, Clayton Murphy won the U.S.A.'s first medal in the 800m in 24 years. Murphy grabbed third place over the last 50m, and Boris Berian faded to 8th after going out fast. Berian looked strong in his heats, qualifying automatically for the final, but perhaps he did not have the necessary endurance. Clayton Murphy's specialty was the 1500m prior to the Olympics, so he likely had a stronger base. Looks like Nike hedged well and got quite the payoff from signing Murphy. All of that said, Dave Wottle (former Dean of Admissions at my alma mater, Rhodes College) still ran the most exciting 800m race ever. Watch Dave Wottle come from last place to win gold in the 1972 Olympics.
Thursday, June 30, 2016
Back in May, I posted about a legal action against Starbucks for too much ice in its drinks. I referenced in that post the earlier legal action taken against Starbucks for under-filling its latte drinks and against McDonald's for damage done by hot coffee. I can't resist adding another hot coffee case to the mix . . . .
Another suit has been brought against Starbucks--my daughter's employer (as I disclosed at the outset in my previous post). This time, the case involves damage caused by hot coffee resulting from a bad drive-through pass-off. The plaintiff requests up to $1 million "for medical expenses, loss of work, and for the mental and physical pain she claims the burning coffee caused her," according to the news report. The case involves second-degree burns--a serious matter in anyone's eyes. Depending on the facts elucidated at trial, this case may (like the McDonald's case from 20+ years ago) have some traction in court. (Apparently, there have been other Starbucks cases involving hot drinks.)
I do feel sorry for plaintiffs who are damaged by hot coffee or beverages. These cases undoubtedly have more gravitas than cases alleging damages based on the amount of ice or beverage served. Yet, the hot beverage cases still nag at me a bit--maybe because I have trouble conceptualizing suing a coffee service business for damage created by a hot beverage that I ordered. Today, reflecting on this new Starbucks case, I did some soul-searching to determine why I am unlikely to sue.
The bottom line is that I understand there is something inherently dangerous about ordering hot coffee in a paper cup with a plastic lid, especially for pick-up at a drive-through window. I know I am assuming a risk in those circumstances. I also know that I may share or bear blame for any spill that happens after I order--the lid on a cup properly sealed and handed to me loosens and sometimes pops right off if I grab the cup from the top under the lid area. Maybe you've noticed that in handling coffee at your favorite coffee shop . . . .
I am no tort lawyer, but I guess I see myself in many of these cases, which makes me wonder whether the plaintiffs and their lawyers place too much reliance on litigation for the achievement of their respective desired objectives . . . . I would hope that many controversies between businesses and consumers, as I indicated in my prior post, could be resolved outside the litigation process. Not every injury is or should be compensable through a legal action.
Moreover, in my work, I have been critical of many securities fraud (including insider trading) class actions as at best inefficient means of addressing certain plaintiffs' concerns. In my experience, I also have seen cases brought against high-profile or deep-pocket defendants more for their settlement value than to redress or prevent a wrong to the plaintiff or society. My gut tells me that I might be critical of some of the hot coffee cases on the same bases if I came to know more of the facts. But I cannot be sure.
Is my instinct off-base? Am I too quick to see fault in the claims of potential plaintiffs? Am I giving coffee service businesses too much cred? I am interested in any thoughts you may have. In any event, we can be confident that the hot beverage cases will continue for the foreseeable future.
Hat tip to Lou Sirico at Legal Skills Prof Blog for pointing out this case to me.
Wednesday, June 8, 2016
If you've been slamming away on a writing deadline then perhaps you've missed the opportunity (like me) to dive into the recent Chancery Court of Delaware Dell appraisal rights opinion (downloadable here). Have no fear, your summary is here.
Vice Chancellor Laster valued Dell’s common stock at $17.62 per share, reflecting a 28% premium above the $13.75 merger price that was paid to Dell shareholders in October 2014 in a going private transaction lead by company-founder Michael Dell. Dell's going private transaction was opposed by Carl Icahn and this juicy, contentious transaction has its own required reading list. When conceding defeat, Carl Icahn sent the following letter to Dell Shareholders:
New York, New York, September 9, 2013
Dear Fellow Dell Inc. Stockholders:
I continue to believe that the price being paid by Michael Dell/Silver Lake to purchase our company greatly undervalues it, among other things, because:
1. Dell is paying a price approximately 70% below its ten-year high of $42.38; and
2. The bid freezes stockholders out of any possibility of realizing Dell’s great potential.
Fast forward nearly 3 years later and it seems Vice Chancellor Laster agrees. VC Laster reached his undervaluation decision despite no finding of significant fault with the company’s directors' conduct or a competing bidder. Instead, VC Laster focused on the fall in the company’s stock price, and a failure to determine the intrinsic value of Dell before negotiating the buyout. The business press and law blogs have exploded with articles, a few of which are highlighted below:
- For a good summary of the ruling see this succinct Delaware Chancery Court blog post and Andrew Ross Sorkin's NY Times article.
- For a good discussion of how appraisal remedies were applied in Dell, see Steven Davidoff Solomon's NY Times article here.
- For a discussion of the increase in shareholder appraisal actions and contributing factors (arbitrage) and the future of appraisal rights, see this ABA article.
Saturday, May 28, 2016
A former law student of mine who practices in Delaware just alerted me to this Delaware Online article.
The article describes the proposed bill as follows:
House Bill 371 would restrict the number of corporate shareholders who can petition the court for a stock appraisal to only those who own $1 million or more of a company's stock or 1 percent of the outstanding shares, depending on which is less. Currently, any shareholder can ask the court to appraise their shares. Those motions are typically filed when a company is the target of an all-cash acquisition and the shareholder wants to ensure the buyer is paying a fair price for the stock. (emphasis added)
Corporate governance expert Charles Elson is quoted as saying:
. . . he understands the argument on both sides. "Anytime you attempt to restrict the rights of a smaller shareholder, it is going to be controversial whether or not the approach is warranted"
The article cites co-authored work by my Nashville neighbor, Randall Thomas (Vanderbilt Law):
A study published earlier this month by four noted corporate law professors, including Wei Jang of Columbia Business School and Randall S. Thomas of Vanderbilt Law School, found that hedge funds have accounted for nearly 75 percent of the amount awarded in all appraisal actions over the last few years. The study also found that 32 percent of the cases involved stakes below $1 million or 1 percent of a company's stock.
Go read the entire article.
Monday, May 9, 2016
[Please keep in mind as you read this post that my daughter is a Starbucks partner. Any pro-Starbucks bias in this post is unintended. But you should factor in my affiliation accordingly.]
Maybe it's just me, but the publicity around the recent suit against Starbucks for putting too much ice in their iced beverages made me think of Goldilocks and her reactions to that porridge, those chairs, and those beds. First it was McDonald's, where the coffee was too hot. Now it's Starbucks, where the coffee is too cold--or, more truthfully, is too watered down from frozen water . . . . (And apparently I missed a Starbucks suit earlier this year on under-filing lattes . . . .)
Different types of tort suits, I know. I always felt bad about the injury to the woman in the McDonald's case, although the fault issue was truly questionable. The recent Starbucks case just seems wrong in so many ways, however. This is a consumer dispute that is best addressed by other means. I admit to believing this most recent suit is actually an abuse of our court system.
How might a customer who is truly concerned about a substandard beverage attempt to remedy the wrong?
Wednesday, March 2, 2016
I have long followed the trials and tribulations of Chesapeake Energy and founder Aubrey McClendon, and I had been planning to write about yesterday's indictment of McClendon for bid rigging in a couple weeks, after I gathered more information. About an hour ago, though, reports broke that former Chesapeake CEO Aubrey McClendon died today. According to CNBC:
McClendon crashed into an embankment while traveling at a "high rate of speed" in Oklahoma City just after 9 a.m. Wednesday morning, said Capt. Paco Balderrama of the Oklahoma City Police Department. Flames engulfed McClendon's vehicle "immediately," and it was burnt so badly that police could not tell if he was wearing a seatbelt, he said.
Before going any further, my thoughts go out to his friends and family. Regardless of how anything else comes together, their loss is real, and I feel badly for them.
In years past, I have questioned how Chesapeake conducted some of their business, including their use of entities and their leasing practices in Michigan and whether loan practices McClendon used personally were at odds with his fiduciary duties to Chesapeake. This round of bid rigging allegations were new to me (a Michigan case settled last year), and I was researching this set of allegations to see what I thought about this case. I remain curious whether it was a case of "singling him out" unfairly, as he claimed, or were there some strong evidence of more.
And even if he were being singled out, was it because the practice didn't occur or is it just how everyone did business? That question remains an open one, even if the case against McClendon is now closed. I hope to learn more in the coming weeks.As to the impact on his former company, CNBC notes:
Chesapeake said Tuesday that it did not expect to face criminal prosecution or fines related to McClendon's charges. The company's stock, which was already substantially higher Wednesday, briefly added to gains following news of McClendon's death.
Tuesday, February 23, 2016
Following is a guest post from by J. Scott Colesanti and Madeline Rasmussen. Scott is a former contributing editor to this Blog, and I am happy to share the post post below. This is sports and labor law post, to be sure, but employment issues, especially big time sports-related ones, are business law, too.
Why NFL Players Might Want the NFL to Win Its Appeal of Brady v. NFL
by J. Scott Colesanti and Madeline Rasmussen
It feels like weeks since we saw a meaningful NFL contest (well, actually it has been a little over a week). But it is nonetheless still weeks until the Brady appeal before the Second Circuit in March. Should the vacatur of the superstar’s 4-game suspension in “Deflategate” be upheld, alternative means of both implementing and reviewing NFL punishment seem likely, alternatives none too comforting for future disciplined football players.
Wednesday, February 10, 2016
New Scholarship on Hedge Fund Activism Urges Courts to Adopt Enhanced Scrutiny of Boards' Defensive Actions
Bernard Sharfman, in his new article on SSRN, The Tension Between hedge Fund Activism and Corporate Law, argues that hedge fund activism for control of a publicly traded corporation is a positive corrective measure in corporate governance. After asserting that hedge fund activism should be permitted, Sharfman, argues, controversially, that courts should depart from traditional deference to a corporate board's decision making authority under the business judgment rule. Alternatively, Sharfman urges courts to adopt a heightened standard of scrutiny when reviewing defensive board actions against hedge funds.
[Hedge Fund Activism] has a role to play as a corrective mechanism in corporate governance and it is up to the courts to find a way to make sure it continues to have a significant impact despite the courts’ inclination to yield to Board authority. In practice, this means that when the plaintiff is an activist hedge fund and the standard of review is the Unocal test because issues of control are present, a less permissive approach needs to be applied, requiring the courts to exercise restraint in interpreting the actions of activist hedge funds as an attempt to gain control.
If there are no issues of control, then Board independence and reasonable investigation still needs to be the focus. That is, before the business judgment rule can be applied, the courts need to utilize an enhanced level of scrutiny in determining whether the Board is truly independent of executive management or any other insider such as a fellow Board member. As previously discussed, Board independence is critical to maximizing the value of HFA. Moreover, reasonable investigation of the activist hedge fund’s recommendations should be required to justify Board action taken to mute the fund’s influence. Like the Unocal test, the burden of proof for establishing independence and reasonable investigation needs to be put on the Board. In sum, what is required in the court’s review of Board actions to mute the influence of an activist hedge fund is something similar to the first prong of the Unocal test except independence and reasonable investigation is now focused on the Board’s evaluation of the fund’s recommendations, not the threat to corporate policy and effectiveness.
Sharfman uses Third Point LLC v. Ruprecht, the 2014 Delaware case invovling Sotheby's poison pill, to illustrate how the traditional (deference) standard of review leads to boards being able to defeat hedge fund activists.
An interesting comment published in the Yale Law Journal by Yale Law Student Carmen X.W. Lu, Unpacking Wolf Packs, offers an alternative view of the Third Point case emphasizing the coalition of hedge funds acting in that case and the court's skepticism of wolf pack activist investors.
This week, Delaware Governor Jack Markell nominated Joseph R. Slights, III for the position held by retiring Vice Chancellor John Noble on the Delaware Court of Chancery.
Judge Slights previously served a 12-year term on the Delaware Superior Court. Immediately prior to his nomination, Judge Slights was a commercial litigation partner at the firm of Morris, James, Hitchens & Williams LLP.
Once Vice Chancellor Noble retires, Vice Chancellor Laster will become the judge with the most experience serving on the Delaware Court of Chancery. Vice Chancellor Laster was sworn into his position in October of 2009. It has been a quick 6+ years; it seems like that was just yesterday.
I outsource the details of Joseph Slights' nomination below:
Wednesday, January 20, 2016
Second Circuit Affirms High Misconduct Standard for Caremark Claims in Cent. Laborers’ Pension Fund v. Dimon
In early January, the Second Circuit Court of Appeals ruled in Cent. Laborers’ Pension Fund v. Dimon to affirm the dismissal of purported shareholder derivative claims alleging that directors of JP Morgan Chase--the primary bankers of Bernard L. Madoff Investment Securities LLC (“BMIS”) for over 20 years--failed to institute internal controls sufficient to detect Bernard Madoff’s Ponzi scheme. The suit was dismissed for failures of demand excuse. Plaintiffs contended that the District Court erred in requiring them to plead that defendants “utterly failed to implement any reporting or information system or controls,” and that instead, they should have been required to plead only defendants’ “utter failure to attempt to assure a reasonable information and reporting system exist[ed].” (emphasis added). The Second Circuit declined, citing to In re General Motors Co. Derivative Litig., No. CV 9627-VCG, 2015 WL 3958724, at *14–15 (Del. Ch. June 26, 2015), a Chancery Court opinion from earlier this year that dismissed a Caremark/oversight liability claim. In In re General Motors the Delaware Chancery Court, found that plaintiffs' allegations that:
[T]he Board did not receive specific types of information do not establish that the Board utterly failed to attempt to assure a reasonable information and reporting system exists, particularly in the case at hand where the Complaint not only fails to plead with particularity that [the defendant] lacked procedures to comply with its . . . reporting requirements, but actually concedes the existence of information and reporting systems. . . .
In other words, the Plaintiffs complain that [the defendant] could have, should have, had a better reporting system, but not that it had no such system.
The Second Circuit's opinion in Central Laborers' affirms that Caremark claims require allegations misconduct sufficient to satisfy a failure of good faith, and cannot rest solely on after-the-fact allegations of failed reasonableness of the corporate reporting system.
Wednesday, October 14, 2015
I am happy to report that Tamika Montgomery-Reeves, currently a partner in Wilson Sonsini Goodrich & Rosati's Wilmington, DE office, has been nominated to become a Vice Chancellor on the Delaware Court of Chancery.
Tamika and I first met as summer associates at Miller & Martin after our 1L years. We both clerked on the Delaware Court of Chancery, albeit for different judges and during different years. We then worked together in the same practice group, as fellow associates, at Weil Gotshal in NYC.
All of that to say, I have worked with Tamika, or I guess I will soon be saying "Vice Chancellor Montgomery-Reeves," on a number of occasions and think she will do an excellent job. Tamika has both the intelligence and personality to be a global ambassador for the court, as a number of Delaware judges before her have been. She will be a great addition to the Delaware Court of Chancery. I look forward to reading her opinions and following her career.