Tuesday, June 19, 2018
An interesting new article appears in the Chronicle of Higher Education: What Happened When the Dean’s Office Stopped Sending Emails After-Hours, by Andrew D. Martin, dean of the College of Literature, Science, and the Arts at the University of Michigan and a professor of political science and statistics, and Anne Curzan associate dean for humanities and a professor of English. Interesting concept, and an idea worth considering. Here's what they tried:
What if we experimented with a policy that set some limits in the dean’s office? Here’s what we came up with:
Limit email traffic to working hours. Except for emergencies, work emails are to be sent between the hours of 7 a.m. and 6 p.m., Monday through Friday. Use the delayed-send function to ensure that emails to and from people working in the dean’s office arrive only within that window.
Try to communicate in person. Whenever possible, associate and assistant deans should communicate with one another and with other professional staff employees in person or by telephone during the business day. Our administrative assistants can help us find quick drop-in times.
Avoid email forwarding. Refrain from forwarding an email to chairs and directors and asking them to forward it to others. When possible, send it yourself directly to the audience you want to communicate with.
Respect working hours. The dean and the associate and assistant deans should not expect — or request — support from professional staff employees outside of the 7 a.m. to 6 p.m. window. An exception is for emergencies, and then only from salaried staff members.
The authors say the rules became part of the dean's office's culture, and although it was not enforced, it is largely followed and has led to more efficient and effective work.
I have to admit, I think it would be hard, and I am notoriously bad for being almost tethered to my email. But I can also see why it would help. I feel absolutely compelled to reply to inquiries and requests. Sometimes I resist the urge to do so, but even then, my mental space has been taken up by obligations. It's not ideal. More important, it means that when I am sending emails after hours, I am getting into other people's space when it is not necessary. Emergencies are one thing, and they happen, but I can definitely do a better job of staying out of people's personal time, and I am going to give it a try.
Monday, May 7, 2018
I was fascinated by Ann Lipton's post on April 14. I started to type a comment, but it got too long. That's when I realized it was actually a responsive blog post.
Ann's post, which posits (among other things) that corporate chief executives might be required to comply with their fiduciary duties when they are acting in their capacity as private citizens, really made me think. I understand her concern. I do think it is different from the disclosure duty issues that I and others scope out in prior work. (Thanks for the shout-out on that, Ann.) Yet, I struggled to find a concise and effective response to Ann's post. Here is what I have come up with so far. It may be inadequate, but it's a start, at least.
Fiduciary duties are contextual. One can have fiduciary duties to more than one independent legal person at the same time, of course, proving this point. (Think of those overlapping directors, Arledge and Chitiea in Weinberger. They're a classic example!) What enables folks to know how to act in these situations is a proper identification of the circumstances in which the person is acting.
So, for example, an agent’s duty to a principal exists for actions taken within the scope of the agency relationship. The agency relationship is defined by the terms of the agreement between principal and agent as to the object of the agency. The principal controls the actions of the agent within those bounds based on that agreement.
Similarly, a director’s or officer's conduct is prescribed and proscribed within the four corners of the terms of their service to the corporation. They owe their duties to the corporation (and in Revlon-land or other direct-duty situations, also to the stockholders). The problem then becomes defining those terms of service. For directors, a quest for evidence of the parameters of their service should start with the statute and extend to any applicable provisions of the corporate charter, bylaws, and board policies and resolutions more generally. For officers, the statute typically doesn’t provide much content on the nature or extent of their services. The charter may not either. Typically, the bylaws and board policies and resolutions, as well as any employment or severance agreement (the validity of which is largely a matter outside the scope of corporate law), would define the scope of service of an officer.
I have trouble envisioning that the scope of service (and therefore, reach of fiduciary duties) for a typical director or officer would extend to, e.g., private ownership of other entities and decisions made in that capacity. Yet, even where there is no technical conflicting interest or breach of a duty of loyalty, there is a clear business interest in having corporate managers—especially highly visible ones—act in a manner that is consistent with corporate policy or values when they are not “on the job.” While voluntary corporate policy or private regulation may have a role in policing that kind of director or officer activity (through service qualifications or employment termination triggers, e.g.), I do not think it is or should be the job of corporate law—including fiduciary duty law—to take on that monitoring and enforcement role.
Nevertheless, I remain convinced that better (more accurate ad complete) disclosure of (at least) inherent conflicts of interest may be needed so investors and other stakeholders can evaluate the potential for undesirable conduct that may impact the nature or value of their investments in the firm. As Ann notes, significant privacy rights exist in this context, too. There's more work to be done here, imv.
Thanks for making me think, Ann. Perhaps you (or others) have a comment on this riposte? We shall see . . . .
Tuesday, April 10, 2018
Last week, the Neel Corporate Governance Center at UT Knoxville hosted one of UT Knoxville's alums, Ron Ford, as a featured speaker. He gave a great talk on boards of directors, from his unique vantage point--that of a CFO. In the course of his remarks, he mentioned a public company corporate gpvernance policy that I had not earlier heard of: a CEO limit or prohibition on outside board service (other than local, small nonprofit board service). A 2017 study found that:
Only 22% of S&P 500 boards set a specific limit in their corporate governance guidelines on the CEO’s outside board service; 65% of those boards limit CEOs to two outside boards, and 32% set the limit at one outside board. One board does not allow the company CEO to serve on any outside corporate boards, and two boards allow their CEO to serve on three outside corporate boards.
This may be why I had not heard about governance policies limiting board service; it seems these policies may be relatively uncommon. I know from experience that CEOs do serve on outside boards and often consider that service an important way to learn valuable things that can be implemented at the firm that enjoys them.
What is the ostensible purpose of a policy restricting the outside board service of a firm's CEO? Perhaps it is obvious. It seems that most firms imposing this kind of restriction on CEOs desire to prevent the CEO from spending significant time on his or her service as a board member of another firm to the detriment of the firm by which he or she is employed as chief executive. An online article succinctly captures the capacity for distraction.
. . . CEOs must weigh . . . the potential disadvantage of having to navigate a crisis. David Larcker, a professor at Stanford Law School and senior faculty at the university’s corporate governance center, says that while most CEOs would say that serving on an outside board is highly valuable, everything changes if either company comes up against a big challenge.
“Where it gets really complicated for a sitting CEO is if something happens,” Larcker says. “You’re a takeover target. You have a big restatement. You’re replacing a CEO. That’s harder to predict and takes up a lot of time.”
Are there CEOs who have experienced this kind of distraction? Yes. A Forbes contributor offers a well-known example in an article entitled "All Operating Executives Should Never Serve On Any Outside Boards":
A good poster child of outside board distractions was Meg Whitman in her final 2 years at the helm of eBay (EBAY). During this time, she joined the boards of Proctor & Gamble and DreamWorks Animation. EBay flew Meg around to Cincinnati and LA board meetings on their private jet. EBay's stock sank. Meg bought Skype. It didn't help.
The same article also calls out two Yahoo! CEOs as further examples. And there are others. See also, e.g., here.
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)
Tuesday, February 6, 2018
A brand new Arizona case continues the trend of incorrectly discussing limited liability companies (LLCs) as limited liability corporations, but it does allow for an interesting look at how entities are sometimes treated (or not) in laws and regulations. Here’s the opening paragraph of the case:
Noah Sensibar appeals from the superior court's ruling affirming the Tucson City Court's finding that he had violated the Tucson City Code (TCC). He argues that the municipal ordinance in question is facially invalid because it conflicts with a state statute shielding members or agents of a limited liability corporation from personal liability.
City of Tucson v. Noah Sensibar, No. 2 CA-CV 2017-0087, 2018 WL 703319 (Ariz. Ct. App. Feb. 5, 2018).
About three years ago, the City of Tucson alleged that Sensibar, as “the managing member and statutory agent of Blue Jay Real Estate LLC, an Arizona corporation, was responsible for building code violations.” Id. (emphasis added). Notwithstanding the incorrect characterization of the entity type, it looks like the court at least reasonable (though not clearly correct) to hold Sensibar individually liable. Here’s why:
The Tuscon City Code states that “Any owner or responsible party who commits, causes, permits, facilitates or aids or abets any violation of any provision of this chapter . . . is responsible for a civil infraction and is subject to a civil sanction of not less than one hundred dollars ($100.00) nor more than two thousand five hundred dollars ($2,500.00).” Tucson Code Sec. 16-48(2) (Violations and penalties).
The Code Definitions in Sec. 16-3 provide the following:
Owner means, as applied to a building, structure, or land, any part owner, joint owner, tenant in common, joint tenant or tenant by the entirety of the whole or a part of such building, structure or land.
. . . .
Person means any natural person, firm, partnership, association, corporation, company or organization of any kind, but not the federal government, state, county, city or political subdivision of the state.
. . . .
Responsible party means an occupant, lessor, lessee, manager, licensee, or person having control over a structure or parcel of land; and in any case where the demolition of a structure is proposed as a means of abatement, any lienholder whose lien is recorded in the official records of the Pima County Recorder's Office.
As such, the Code seems to contemplate holding both entities and individuals liable. Still, Sensibar had an argument. The use of the term “manager” here causes some potential confusion because one can be a manager of an LLC, while the LLC might serve as the manager of the property. Thus, it could be that only the LLC should be liable. Another plausible reading, though, is that “manager” meant the natural person doing the managing as is common in property situations. Manager, like occupant, lessee, and lessor, is not defined in the Code, so it would seem the intended source of the definitions should be from a property perspective, not an entity perspective.
Similarly, the Code could mean a natural “person having control over a structure” can be liable. If that’s the case, and the court seems to have gone down this road, the argument would be that Sensibar was being held liable directly for his role as manager or person in control of the property and not vicariously for violations of the LLC. Given that occupants, lessors, and lessees, among others, can be held liable, it does appear that the Code could have intended to impose liability directly on multiple parties, including both individuals and entities. This would be sensible, in many contexts, though it would also be sensible to say explicitly, especially given that the term “person” clearly includes entities.
A simple improvement might be to update the definition of “responsible party,” as follows:
Responsible party means an, whether as an individual or entity, any occupant, lessor, lessee, manager, licensee, or person having control over a structure or parcel of land and in any case where the demolition of a structure is proposed as a means of abatement, any lienholder whose lien is recorded in the official records of the Pima County Recorder's Office.
That would, at least, be consistent with the decision. Because if the court is holding Sensibar liable for merely being the manager of the LLC, and not as the manager of the property, the case is wrongly decided. Too bad the notice of appeal was not timely filed – maybe we could have found out.
UPDATE: Based on a good comment from Tom N., I did a little more research. As of an LLC filing in 2009, Noah Sensibar owned at least a 20% interest. (It may be 50% because there were two listed members, but it was at least 20%.) As such, this suggests that the LLC does not have funding to cover the fines or that express indemnification is lacking and the other member(s) won't agree to cover the costs from LLC funds.
I will also note that a 2016 decision denying Sensibar's appeal stated, "The court also heard evidence that Sensibar, the managing partner of the LLC, was 'the person in charge' of the property." City of Tucson v. Sensibar, No. 2 CA-CV 2016-0051, 2016 WL 5899737, at *1 (Ariz. Ct. App. Oct. 11, 2016). Seriously? He's an LLC manager. That's all. LLCs are not corporations OR partnerships. THEY ARE LLCS!
Tuesday, December 19, 2017
A recent case in Washington state introduced me to some interesting facets of Washington's recreational marijuana law. The case came to my attention because it is part of my daily search for cases (incorrectly) referring to limited liability companies (LLCs) as "limited liability corporations." The case opens:
In 2012, Washington voters approved Initiative Measure 502. LAWS OF 2013, ch. 3, codified as part of chapter 69.50 RCW. Initiative 502 legalizes the possession and sale of marijuana and creates a system for the distribution and sale of recreational marijuana. Under RCW 69.50.325(3)(a), a retail marijuana license shall be issued only in the name of the applicant. No retail marijuana license shall be issued to a limited liability corporation unless all members are qualified to obtain a license. RCW 69.50.331(1)(b)(iii). The true party of interest of a limited liability company is “[a]ll members and their spouses.”1 Under RCW 69.50.331(1)(a), the Washington State Liquor and Cannabis Board (WSLCB) considers prior criminal conduct of the applicant.2
(b) No license of any kind may be issued to:. . . .(iii) A partnership, employee cooperative, association, nonprofit corporation, or corporation unless formed under the laws of this state, and unless all of the members thereof are qualified to obtain a license as provided in this section;
True party of interest: Persons to be qualified
Sole proprietorship: Sole proprietor and spouse.General partnership: All partners and spouses.Limited partnership, limited liability partnership, or limited liability limited partnership: All general partners and their spouses and all limited partners and spouses.Limited liability company: All members and their spouses and all managers and their spouses.Privately held corporation: All corporate officers (or persons with equivalent title) and their spouses and all stockholders and their spouses.Publicly held corporation: All corporate officers (or persons with equivalent title) and their spouses and all stockholders and their spouses.
Multilevel ownership structures: All persons and entities that make up the ownership structure (and their spouses).
(1) A corporation has the officers described in its bylaws or appointed by the board of directors in accordance with the bylaws.(2) A duly appointed officer may appoint one or more officers or assistant officers if authorized by the bylaws or the board of directors.(3) The bylaws or the board of directors shall delegate to one of the officers responsibility for preparing minutes of the directors' and shareholders' meetings and for authenticating records of the corporation.(4) The same individual may simultaneously hold more than one office in a corporation.
Requirement for and duties of board of directors.
(1) Each corporation must have a board of directors, except that a corporation may dispense with or limit the authority of its board of directors by describing in its articles of incorporation, or in a shareholders' agreement authorized by RCW 23B.07.320, who will perform some or all of the duties of the board of directors.(2) Subject to any limitation set forth in this title, the articles of incorporation, or a shareholders' agreement authorized by RCW 23B.07.320:(a) All corporate powers shall be exercised by or under the authority of the corporation's board of directors; and(b) The business and affairs of the corporation shall be managed under the direction of its board of directors, which shall have exclusive authority as to substantive decisions concerning management of the corporation's business.
(4) Persons who exercise control of business - The WSLCB will conduct an investigation of any person or entity who exercises any control over the applicant's business operations. This may include both a financial investigation and/or a criminal history background.
December 19, 2017 in Corporations, Current Affairs, Entrepreneurship, Family Business, Joshua P. Fershee, Legislation, Licensing, LLCs, Management, Nonprofits, Partnership, Shareholders, Unincorporated Entities | Permalink | Comments (0)
Saturday, November 18, 2017
Quietly, just over two months ago, we got our Lady Vols back. As you may recall, back in 2014, The University of Tennessee, Knoxville decided to consolidate its athletic branding behind the ubiquitous orange "Power T." The women's basketball team was exempted from the brand consolidation and retained the Lady Vol name and old-school logo in honor of our beloved departed coach, Pat Head Summitt. (See here.)
Many can be credited with the revival of the Lady Vols brand (and I do consider it to be an accomplishment), although perhaps these five heroic women are owed the largest debt of gratitude for the achievement. I guess my earlier envisioned dreams of profiting from the abandonment of the trademarked Lady Vols logo will not soon be realized . . . .
There are lingering lessons in this affair for businesses and their management--and universities (as well as their athletic departments) are, among other things, businesses. Knoxville's former Mayor weighed in with comments on the matter in a recent local news column, advising "you need to be sensitive to what the customer likes." He concludes (bracketed text added by me):
People will speculate for a long time on how UT let itself get caught up in this unfortunate situation for three years. It did not have to happen. It can be a valuable lesson, if once leaders realize a mistake has been made, postponing a resolution does not improve it. Better to make amends and move on.
Hopefully, DiPietro [the university's President] has learned from this that it is better to get ahead of a volatile issue than to be consumed by it. Currie [the university's new Director of Athletics] and Davenport [the campus's new Chancellor] solved it for him. They have won considerable good will for themselves and the university.
From Coca-Cola and its disastrous New Coke introduction (mentioned in the article) to Google Glass (which may have better applications, for the moment, than the general consumer market), businesses and their management have learned these lessons over and over. Listen to the customer, and if you make a miscalculation, admit it and move on.
As law schools and law instructors continue to innovate to serve students, our universities (for those who are part of one), and the profession (among other constituencies), we may be able to learn a lesson or two from some of the broader experimentation in the business world in the introduction of new products and services. Change for the sake of change or for the sake of branding simplicity, without an understanding of the relevant constituents, certainly is a risky proposition. I hope that we can be thoughtful and consider all affected interests as we innovate. And I also hope that when we fail in our change efforts (and some of us will fail) we can cut our losses and re-appraoch change with new knowledge and renewed energy to succeed.
Getting back to those Lady Vols, our women's basketball team is now 2-0 with convincing wins over ETSU and James Madison. The next game is Monday against Wichita State, followed by a Thanksgiving evening match against Marquette. Go Lady Vols!
Friday, September 29, 2017
I recently finished Elizabeth Pollman and Jordan Barry's article entitled Regulatory Entrepreneurship. The article is thoughtfully written and timely. I highly recommend it.
This Article examines what we term “regulatory entrepreneurship” — pursuing a line of business in which changing the law is a significant part of the business plan. Regulatory entrepreneurship is not new, but it has become increasingly salient in recent years as companies from Airbnb to Tesla, and from DraftKings to Uber, have become agents of legal change. We document the tactics that companies have employed, including operating in legal gray areas, growing “too big to ban,” and mobilizing users for political support. Further, we theorize the business and law-related factors that foster regulatory entrepreneurship. Well-funded, scalable, and highly connected startup businesses with mass appeal have advantages, especially when they target state and local laws and litigate them in the political sphere instead of in court.
Finally, we predict that regulatory entrepreneurship will increase, driven by significant state and local policy issues, strong institutional support for startup companies, and continued technological progress that facilitates political mobilization. We explore how this could catalyze new coalitions, lower the cost of political participation, and improve policymaking. However, it could also lead to negative consequences when companies’ interests diverge from the public interest.
Friday, August 18, 2017
On July 15 of this year, The New York Times ran an article entitled, “The Lawyer, The Addict.” The article looks at the life of Peter, a partner of a prestigious Silicon Valley law firm, before he died of a drug overdose.
You should read the entire article, but I will provide a few quotes.
- “He had been working more than 60 hours a week for 20 years, ever since he started law school and worked his way into a partnership in the intellectual property practice of Wilson Sonsini.”
- “Peter worked so much that he rarely cooked anymore, sustaining himself largely on fast food, snacks, coffee, ibuprofen and antacids.”
- “Peter, one of the most successful people I have ever known, died a drug addict, felled by a systemic bacterial infection common to intravenous users.”
- “The history on his cellphone shows the last call he ever made was for work. Peter, vomiting, unable to sit up, slipping in and out of consciousness, had managed, somehow, to dial into a conference call.”
- “The further I probed, the more apparent it became that drug abuse among America’s lawyers is on the rise and deeply hidden.”
- “One of the most comprehensive studies of lawyers and substance abuse was released just seven months after Peter died. That 2016 report, from the Hazelden Betty Ford Foundation and the American Bar Association, analyzed the responses of 12,825 licensed, practicing attorneys across 19 states. Over all, the results showed that about 21 percent of lawyers qualify as problem drinkers, while 28 percent struggle with mild or more serious depression and 19 percent struggle with anxiety. Only 3,419 lawyers answered questions about drug use, and that itself is telling, said Patrick Krill, the study’s lead author and also a lawyer. “It’s left to speculation what motivated 75 percent of attorneys to skip over the section on drug use as if it wasn’t there.” In Mr. Krill’s opinion, they were afraid to answer. Of the lawyers that did answer those questions, 5.6 percent used cocaine, crack and stimulants; 5.6 percent used opioids; 10.2 percent used marijuana and hash; and nearly 16 percent used sedatives.”
There is much more in the article, including claims that the problems with mindset and addiction, for many, start in law school.
After reading this article, and many like it (and living through the suicide of a partner at one of my former firms), I decided to do a series of posts on Law & Wellness. These posts will not focus on mental health or addiction problems. Rather, these posts will focus on the positive side. For example, I plan a handful of interviews with lawyers and educators who manage to do well both inside and outside of the office, finding ways to work efficiently and prioritize properly. My co-editors may chime in from time to time with related posts of their own.
Tuesday, August 1, 2017
My colleague, Joan Heminway, yesterday posted Democratic Norms and the Corporation: The Core Notion of Accountability. She raises some interesting points (as usual), and she argues: "In my view, more work can be done in corporate legal scholarship to push on the importance of accountability as a corporate norm and explore further analogies between political accountability and corporate accountability."
I have not done a lot of reading in this area, but I am inclined to agree that it seems like an area that warrants more discussion and research. The post opens with some thought-provoking writing by Daniel Greenwood, including this:
Most fundamentally, corporate law and our major business corporations treat the people most analogous to the governed, those most concerned with corporate decisions, as mere helots. Employees in the American corporate law system have no political rights at all—not only no vote, but not even virtual representation in the boardroom legislature.
Those on the right, like Milton Friedman, argue that the shareholder-wealth-maximization requirement prohibits firms from acting in ways that benefit, say, local communities or the environment, at the expense of the bottom line. Those on the left, like Franken, argue that the duty to shareholders makes corporations untrustworthy and dangerous. They are both wrong.
August 1, 2017 in Business Associations, Corporations, CSR, Delaware, Joan Heminway, Joshua P. Fershee, Legislation, Management, Research/Scholarhip, Shareholders, Social Enterprise | Permalink | Comments (1)
Tuesday, July 18, 2017
The more I read about social enterprise entities, the less I like about them. In 2014, my colleague Elaine Wilson and I wrote March of the Benefit Corporation: So Why Bother? Isn’t the Business Judgment Rule Alive and Well? We observed:
Regardless of jurisdiction, there may be value in having an entity that plainly states the entity’s benefit purpose, but in most instances, it does not seem necessary (and is perhaps even redundant). Furthermore, the existence of the benefit corporation opens the door to further scrutiny of the decisions of corporate directors who take into account public benefit as part of their business planning, which erodes director primacy, which limits director options, which can, ultimately, harm businesses by stifling innovation and creativity. In other words, this raises the question: does the existence of the benefit corporation as an alternative entity mean that traditional business corporations will be held to an even stricter, profit-maximization standard?
I am more firmly convinced this is the path we are on. The emergence of social enterprise enabling statutes and the demise of director primacy threaten to greatly, and gravely, limit the scope of business decisions directors can make for traditional for-profit entities, threatening both social responsibility and economic growth. Recent Delaware cases, as well as other writings from Delaware judges, suggest that shareholder wealth maximization has become a more singular and narrow obligation of for-profit entities, and that other types of entities (such as non profits or benefit corporations) are the only proper entity forms for companies seeking to pursue paths beyond pure, and blatant, profit seeking. 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, to the detriment of employees, society, and, yes, shareholders.
I know there are some who believe that I see the sky falling when it's just a little rain. Perhaps. I would certainly concede that the problems I see can be addressed through law, if necessary. I am just not a big fan of passing some more laws and regulations, so we can pass more laws to fix the things we added. My view of entity purpose remains committed to the principle of director primacy. Directors are obligated to run the entity for the benefit of the shareholders, but, absent fraud, illegality, or self-dealing, the directors decide what actions are for the benefit of shareholders. Period, full stop.
Thursday, July 6, 2017
Wisniewski, Yekini, and Omar on “Psychopathic Traits of Corporate Leadership as Predictors of Future Stock Returns”
Tomasz Piotr Wisniewski, Liafisu Sina Yekini, and Ayman M. A. Omar posted “Psychopathic Traits of Corporate Leadership as Predictors of Future Stock Returns” on SSRN on June 13, 2017. You can find their abstract here.
I was particularly interested in how the authors measured psychopathy. Here is a relevant excerpt:
Using UK data, we construct a number of corporate psychopathy indicators and link them to the returns that ensue over the next 250 trading days - a period roughly equivalent to one calendar year.
Even if clear guidance exists on how to diagnose psychopathic personality disorder in humans (Hare 1991, 2003), the practical difficulty is that executives will be generally unwilling to participate in time consuming surveys, particularly those that are likely to expose the dark side of their character. We choose to follow a more pragmatic approach and, similarly to Chatterjee and Hambrick (2007), collect information in an unobtrusive way by going through company-related archives and data. Firstly, using automated content analysis we assess to what extent the language in annual report narratives is symptomatic of psychopathy. This is done by counting the frequency of words that are aggressive, characteristic of speakers who are self-absorbed and who have the tendency to assign blame to others. Secondly, we look at likely correlates of managerial integrity. More specifically, we try to identify companies whose auditors have expressed reservations in the Emphasis of Matter section of the annual report and those that have experienced a publicized Financial Reporting Council (FRC) intervention. Thirdly, we consider a measure that derives from the observation that psychopaths require stronger external stimuli to experience emotions and, therefore, have the tendency to take high risks. We assume that excessive exposure in a corporation will result in a high degree of idiosyncratic risk. This type of risk, which is entirely company-specific and unrelated to the broader economy, is measured in our empirical inquiry. Lastly, we construct a variable to capture the reluctance of a company to donate to charitable causes.
Our empirical investigation documents a negative association between the presence of managerial psychopathic traits and future return on common equity.
Tuesday, June 13, 2017
I am such a fan of Sinclair Oil Corp. v. Levien, 280 A.2d 717 (Del. 1971), that I use the case in both Business Organizations and in Energy Law. The case does a great job of giving a basic overview of parent-subsidiary relationships, some of the basic fiduciary duties owed in such contexts, and it sets up the discussion of why companies use subsidiaries in the first place.
On fiduciary duties and when the intrinsic (entire) fairness test applies:
A parent does indeed owe a fiduciary duty to its subsidiary when there are parent-subsidiary dealings. However, this alone will not evoke the intrinsic fairness standard. This standard will be applied only when the fiduciary duty is accompanied by self-dealing — the situation when a parent is on both sides of a transaction with its subsidiary. Self-dealing occurs when the parent, by virtue of its domination of the subsidiary, causes the subsidiary to act in such a way that the parent receives something from the subsidiary to the exclusion of, and detriment to, the minority stockholders of the subsidiary
On what test to apply to parent-subsidiary dividends:
We do not accept the argument that the intrinsic fairness test can never be applied to a dividend declaration by a dominated board, although a dividend declaration by a dominated board will not inevitably demand the application of the intrinsic fairness standard. Moskowitz v. Bantrell, 41 Del.Ch. 177, 190 A.2d 749 (Del.Supr. 1963). If such a dividend is in essence self-dealing by the parent, then the intrinsic fairness standard is the proper standard. For example, suppose a parent dominates a subsidiary and its board of directors. The subsidiary has outstanding two classes of stock, X and Y. Class X is owned by the parent and Class Y is owned by minority stockholders of the subsidiary. If the subsidiary, at the direction of the parent, declares a dividend on its Class X stock only, this might well be self-dealing by the parent. It would be receiving something from the subsidiary to the exclusion of and detrimental to its minority stockholders. This self-dealing, coupled with the parent's fiduciary duty, would make intrinsic fairness the proper standard by which to evaluate the dividend payments.
. . . . The dividends resulted in great sums of money being transferred from Sinven to Sinclair. However, a proportionate share of this money was received by the minority shareholders of Sinven. Sinclair received nothing from Sinven to the exclusion of its  minority stockholders. As such, these dividends were not self-dealing. We hold therefore that the Chancellor erred in applying the intrinsic fairness test as to these dividend payments. The business judgment standard should have been applied.
On whether shareholder of one subsidiary should be allowed to participate in ventures pursued by other subsidiaries:
The plaintiff proved no business opportunities which came to Sinven independently and which Sinclair either took to itself or denied to Sinven. As a matter of fact, with two minor exceptions which resulted in losses, all of Sinven's operations have been conducted in Venezuela, and Sinclair had a policy of exploiting its oil properties located in different countries by subsidiaries located in the particular countries.
It makes sense for companies, often, to use subsidiaries to keep certain businesses well organized and to protect assets for shareholder. That is, I might only want to invest in a subsidiary doing business in Mexico because I trust that the assets there are secure. I may not want to participate in work in Venezuela, which I might deemed riskier. And it's not just shareholders who might feel that way. Creditors, too, may view such investments very differently and may only be willing to participate in ventures where the risks can be more easily assessed.
Tuesday, June 6, 2017
More than two years ago, I posted Shareholder Activists Can Add Value and Still Be Wrong, where I explained my view on shareholder proposals:
I have no problem with shareholders seeking to impose their will on the board of the companies in which they hold stock. I don't see activist shareholder as an inherently bad thing. I do, however, think it's bad when boards succumb to the whims of activist shareholders just to make the problem go away. Boards are well served to review serious requests of all shareholders, but the board should be deciding how best to direct the company. It's why we call them directors.
Today, the Detroit Free Press reported that shareholders of automaker GM soundly defeated a proposal from billionaire investor David Einhorn that would have installed an alternate slate of board nominees and created two classes of stock. (All the proposals are available here.) Shareholders who voted were against the proposals by more than 91%. GM's board, in materials signed by Mary Barra, Chairman & Chief Executive Officer and Theodore Solso, Independent Lead Director, launched an aggressive campaign to maintain the existing board (PDF here) and the split shares proposal (PDF here). GM argued in the board maintenance piece:
Greenlight’s Dividend Shares proposal has the potential to disrupt our progress and undermine our performance. In our view, a vote for any of the Greenlight candidates would represent an endorsement of that high-risk proposal to the detriment of your GM investment.
Another shareholder proposal asking the board to separate the board chair and CEO positions was reported by the newspaper as follows: "A separate shareholder proposal that would have forced GM to separate the role of independent board chairman and CEO was defeated by shareholders." Not sure. Though the proposal was defeated, it's worth noting that the proposal would not have "forced" anything. The proposal was an "advisory shareholder proposal" requesting the separation of the functions. No mandate here, because such decisions must be made by the board, not the shareholders. The proposal stated:
Shareholders request our Board of Directors to adopt as policy, and amend our governing documents as necessary, to require the Chair of the Board of Directors, whenever possible, to be an independent member of the Board. The Board would have the discretion to phase in this policy for the next CEO transition, implemented so it did not violate any existing agreement. If the Board determines that a Chair who was independent when selected is no longer independent, the Board shall select a new Chair who satisfies the requirements of the policy within a reasonable amount of time. Compliance with this policy is waived if no independent director is available and willing to serve as Chair. This proposal requests that all the necessary steps be taken to accomplish the above.
GM argued against this proposal because the "policy advocated by this proposal would take away the Board’s discretion to evaluate and change its leadership structure." Also not true. It the proposal were mandatory, then this would be true, but as a request, it cannot and could not take away anything. If the shareholders made such a request and the board declined to follow that request, there might be repercussions for doing so, but the proposal would have kept in place the "Board’s discretion to evaluate and change its leadership structure."
These proposals appear to have been properly brought, properly considered, and properly rejected. As I suggested in 2015, shareholder activists can help improve long-term value, even when following the activists' proposals would not. That is just as true today and these proposals may well prime the pumpTM for future board or shareholder actions. That is, GM has conceded that its stock is undervalued and that change is needed. GM argues those changes are underway, and for now, most voting shareholder agree. But we'll see how this looks if the stock price has not noticeably improved next year. An alternative path forward on some key issues has been shared, and that puts pressure on this board to deliver. They can do it their own way, but they are on notice that there are alternatives. An shareholders now know that, too.
This knowledge underscores the value of shareholder proposals as a process. They can and should create accountability, and that is a good thing. I agree with GM that the board should keep control of how it structures the GM leadership team. But I agree with the shareholders that if this board doesn't perform, it may well be time for a change.
June 6, 2017 in Corporate Finance, Corporate Governance, Corporations, Current Affairs, Financial Markets, Joshua P. Fershee, Management, Securities Regulation, Shareholders | Permalink | Comments (0)
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)
Friday, December 16, 2016
My favorite new (to me) podcast is NPR's How I Built This. They describe the podcast as "about innovators, entrepreneurs, and idealists, and the stories behind the movements they built. Each episode is a narrative journey marked by triumphs, failures, serendipity and insight — told by the founders of some of the world's best known companies and brands."
So far, I have listened to two of the episodes: one about the Sam Adams founder Jim Koch and one about the Clif Bar co-founder Gary Erickson.
On the Sam Adams episode, I liked Jim Koch's distinction between scary and dangerous -- repelling off a mountain with an expert guide is scary but not not necessarily dangerous; walking on a snow-covered, frozen lake on a sunny day is dangerous but not necessarily scary. Jim said that his comfortable job at Boston Consulting Group was not scary, but it was dangerous in luring him away from his true calling. However, founding his own company (Sam Adams) was scary, but not really as dangerous as working for BCG. Also, it was interesting to find out that Jim Koch is a Harvard JD/MBA.
On the Clif Bar episode, though I have eaten more than my share of Clif Bars, I was surprised to learn that the bars were named for Gary's father, Clif. The Clif Bar episode also gave great insight into the emotions that can come out when deciding whether to sell your business; Gary decided not to sell to Quaker Oats at the last minute and then needed to buy-out his partner. Separately, Gary talked about the need for corporate counsel (and how a "handshake deal" with a distributor almost cost him his business), but he also noted how many attorneys are simply too expensive for small businesses.
Both entrepreneurs drew on lessons they learned during their outdoor adventure experiences. And both entrepreneurs discussed some combination of lawsuits, contracts, and regulatory challenges.
Looking forward to listening to more episodes.
Wednesday, November 23, 2016
I have been thinking about the long-short term investment horizon debate, definitions, empirics and governance design consequences for some time now (see prior BLPB post here and also see Joshua Fershee's take on the topic). This has been on mind so much that I am now planning a June, 2017 conference on that very topic in conjunction with the Adolf A. Berle Jr. Center on Corporations, Law & Society (founded by Charles “Chuck” O’Kelley at Seattle University School of Law). In planning this interdisciplinary conference where the goal is to invite corporate governance folks, finance and economics scholars, and psychologists and neuroscientist, I have had the pleasure of reading a lot of out-of-discipline work and talking with the various authors. It has been an unexpected benefit of conference planning. I also want some industry voices represented so I have reached out to Aspen Institute, Conference Board and a new group, Focusing Capital on the Long Term (FCLT), which I learned about through this process.
I share this with BLPB readers for several reasons. The first is that the FCLT, is a nonprofit organization, a nonprofit organization for BUSINESS issues created and funded by BUSINESSES. In July 2016, the Canada Pension Plan Investment Board, McKinsey & Company together with BlackRock, The Dow Chemical Company and Tata Sons founded FCLT. Other asset managers, owners, corporations and professional services firms (approximately 20) have joined FCLT as members. Rather than the typical application of a chamber of commerce style organization or trade industry group, here the stated missing of FCLT is to “actively engage in research and public dialogue regarding the question of how to encourage long-term behaviors in business and investment decisions.”
Second, FCLT has access to otherwise proprietary information—like C-suite executive surveys---and is conducting original research and publishing white papers and research reports on the issues of management pressures, and governance designs that may promote a long-term time horizon.
I know for some folks reading, especially those strongly aligned with a shareholder rights camp, will view this with skepticism as a backdoor campaign to promote executive/management power and bolster the reputation of professional service firms hired by those managers.** For me, though the anecdotal experience is a valuable component to considering all sides to the debate. It also helps articulate why and how the feedback loop of short-term pressures—even if it is only perceived rather than structurally quanitifable—may exist.
Third, I found some of the materials, particularly the Rising to the Challenge of Short-termism, written by Dominic Barton, Jonathan Bailey, and Joshua Zoffer in 2016 to be a useful reading for my corporate governance seminar. It helped to explain the gap between the law and the pressure of short-termism. It also helped provide a window into at least some aspects of decision making and payoffs in the governance setting. It can be quite hard to give students a window in the C-suite and BOD dynamics that they are naturally curious about while in law school. Even if you ideologically or empirically disagree with the claim of short-termism when trying to structure balanced reading materials that provide an introduction to the full scope of measures, these are resources worth considering.
Rising to the Challenge of Short-termism, written by Dominic Barton, Jonathan Bailey, and Joshua Zoffer in 2016, draws upon a McKinsey survey of over 1,000 global C-Suite executives and board members. The report describes increasing pressures on executives to meet short-term financial performance metrics and that the window to meet those metrics was decreasing. The shortening time horizon shapes both operations decisions as well as strategic planning where the average plan has shrunk to 2 years or less. Culture matters. Firms with self-reported long-term cultures reported less willingness to take actions like cut discretionary spending or delay projects when faced with a likely failure to meet quarterly benchmarks compared with firms that didn’t self-report a long-term culture. Sources of the pressure are perceived to come from within the board and executives, but also cite to greater industry-wide competition, vocal activist investors, earning expectations and economic uncertainty. The article concludes with 10 elements of a long-term strategy as a mini action plan.
Straight talk for the long term: How to improve the investor-corporate dialogue published in March 2015.
Investing for the future: How institutional investors can reorient their portfolio strategies and investment management to focus capital on the long term, published in March 2015. The paper identifies 5 core action areas for institutional investors focusing on investment beliefs, risk appetite statement, bench-marking process, evaluations and incentives and investment mandates to evaluate investment horizons.
A roadmap for focusing capital on the long term: A summary of ideas for asset owners, asset managers, boards of directors, and corporate management to focus on long-term value creation, published March 2015.
Long-term value summit in 2015 with a published discussion report made available February 2016. “120 executives, investors, board members, and other leaders from around the world gathered in New York City for the Long-Term Value Summit. Their mandate: to identify the causes and mechanisms of the short-term thinking that has come to pervade our markets and profit-seeking institutions and, more importantly, to brainstorm actionable solutions”
**The initial board of directors, announced on September 28, 2016 at the first board meeting, include some well positioned folks within BlackRock (Mark Wiseman), McKinsey & Co. (Dominic Barton), Dow Chemical (Andrew Liveris), Unilever (Paul Polman) and more. The BOD will be advised by Larry Fink, Chairman and CEO of BlackRock, as well.
Friday, November 4, 2016
Over the next few weeks, I plan to write a series of posts exploring developments in this area of faith and business. I plan three additional posts, looking at faith and business (sometimes called, "faith and work") initiatives in (1) universities, (2) churches, and (3) businesses. My comments in this series will have a Christian focus, as that is my faith and is the area with which I am most familiar, but I welcome comments from any faith tradition.
Based on what I have seen around the country, many universities, churches, and businesses seem to be increasing their focus on the integration of faith and business. For some, this is a terrifying development. For others it is long overdue. I submit that both sides should attempt to engage in perspective-taking and nuanced discussion in an attempt to reach common ground.
As someone who prioritizes his faith, I also want to share my personal thoughts on the area of “faith and business” in this introductory post. First, some Christians, myself included, often lose sight of the fact that Jesus said that all the law hangs on loving God and loving others. Jesus cared for the societal outcasts (here, here, and here), while strongly (but lovingly) criticizing the spiritual leaders. He had and has followers with a diverse variety of political views. Jesus did things like healing people on the Sabbath that appeared to break religious law, but actually fulfilled the true, loving spirit of the law. Second, as Inside Edition correspondent Megan Alexander reminded Belmont University students and faculty last week, Christians should focus on doing high quality work, because the Christian scripture instructs for us to our work “heartily, as for the Lord.” This is a tough one for me, as I am often dissatisfied with my work product, but I think the call is to do the absolute best work you can do, with your talents and given your various responsibilities. Third, and finally, I think participants in the “faith and business” conversation have to realize that people of faith are unlikely to be able to leave their faith at home. There can be good conversations about how that faith can and should be expressed in business, but I don’t think it is realistic to think that serious people at faith can just turn off their beliefs while at work. While the discussions about the interplay of faith and business may be difficult, they are important discussions to have in this pluralistic society.
Friday, October 14, 2016
As a professor who moved from a law school to a business school, I remain amazed how little the two legal scholarly worlds overlap. I do, however, think the overlap is increasing somewhat, as more professors move between the two types of schools and the conferences and journals becoming a bit less segregated. That said, I imagine that many of our law professor readers may have missed legal studies professor Larry DiMatteo's (University of Florida, Warrington College of Business) 2010 American Business Law Journal article on strategic contracting. I had not read it until I moved to a business school and met Larry at a legal studies conference. Larry's article is proving useful in my current work, so I thought I would share it here with our readers. Abstract reproduced below:
This paper uses sources taken from the legal literature, as well as literature from strategy and human resource management. It explores Professor Gilson’s noted remark in the Yale Law Journal that “business lawyers serve as transaction cost engineers and this function has the potential for creating value.” This exploration focuses on the strategic use of contract law in gaining a competitive advantage and to create value. It begins by differentiating two frames of the contract paradigm. One is the internal frame in which contract law’s inherent flexibility allows for its use as a source of competitive advantage. The second frame is external since it focuses on the use of the contract paradigm in non-contractual contexts.
The paper examines the use of contract to create value and uses for examples, the commodification of information, licensing and IT outsourcing, and franchising. From there, the paper explores the use of contracts to sustain a competitive advantage (strategic contracting) and to create shared competitive advantages (strategic collaboration). It uses the creation and use of patent pools to illustrate both strategic uses of contract law. The next part focuses on the use of contracts to mitigate uncertainty in business transactions. It explores the strategic use of existing contract doctrines, the use contracts to insure performance and to deter opportunistic behavior, and the use of contracts to develop a preventive legal strategy. This is followed by the examination of contracting for innovation and contracts’ role in creating private governance structures, such as strategic joint venturing.
The final parts explore the use of contract as metaphor in nexus of contact theory in corporate law, psychological contract theory in employment law, and the potential abuse of the freedom of contract paradigm in limited liability company law. The paper then examines strategic responses to regulation by asking whether strategic avoidance or non-compliance to regulations has a place in a company’s legal strategy? The paper concludes by asking how does strategic contracting impact contract law? It answers the question by arguing that contract law change is inevitable due to a feedback loop.
Thursday, July 21, 2016
Jamie Dimon (JP Morgan Chase), Warren Buffet (Berkshire Hathaway), Mary Barra (General Motors), Jeff Immet (GE), Larry Fink (Blackrock) and other executives think so and have published a set of "Commonsense Principles of Corporate Governance" for public companies. There are more specifics in the Principles, but the key points cribbed from the front page of the new website are as follows:
Truly independent corporate boards are vital to effective governance, so no board should be beholden to the CEO or management. Every board should meet regularly without the CEO present, and every board should have active and direct engagement with executives below the CEO level;
■ Diverse boards make better decisions, so every board should have members with complementary and diverse skills, backgrounds and experiences. It’s also important to balance wisdom and judgment that accompany experience and tenure with the need for fresh thinking and perspectives of new board members;
■ Every board needs a strong leader who is independent of management. The board’s independent directors usually are in the best position to evaluate whether the roles of chairman and CEO should be separate or combined; and if the board decides on a combined role, it is essential that the board have a strong lead independent director with clearly defined authorities and responsibilities;
■ Our financial markets have become too obsessed with quarterly earnings forecasts. Companies should not feel obligated to provide earnings guidance — and should do so only if they believe that providing such guidance is beneficial to shareholders;
■ A common accounting standard is critical for corporate transparency, so while companies may use non-Generally Accepted Accounting Principles (“GAAP”) to explain and clarify their results, they never should do so in such a way as to obscure GAAP-reported results; and in particular, since stock- or options-based compensation is plainly a cost of doing business, it always should be reflected in non-GAAP measurements of earnings; and
■ Effective governance requires constructive engagement between a company and its shareholders. So the company’s institutional investors making decisions on proxy issues important to long-term value creation should have access to the company, its management and, in some circumstances, the board; similarly, a company, its management and board should have access to institutional investors’ ultimate decision makers on those issues.
I expect that shareholder activists, proxy advisory firms, and corporate governance nerds like myself will scrutinize the specifics against what the signatories’ companies are actually doing. Nonetheless, I commend these business leaders for at least starting a dialogue (even if a lot of the recommendations are basic common sense) and will be following this closely.