Wednesday, May 4, 2016
In follow up to my post yesterday, my trusted and valued co-blogger Joan Heminway asked a good question (as usual) based one of my comments. My response became long enough that I thought it warranted a follow-up post (and it needed formatting). Joan commented:
you say: "there should be no problem if, for example, Delaware corporate law did not allow a for-profit entity to exercise religion for the sole sake of religion. I think that is the case right now: that’s not a proper corporate purpose under my read of existing law." Are you implying that a corporate purpose of that kind for a for-profit corporation organized in Delaware would be unlawful? Can you explain?
My response: I am suggesting exactly that, though I concede one might need a complaining shareholder first. My read of eBay, and Chief Justice Strine’s musing on the subject, suggest that an entity that is run for purposes of religion (not shareholder wealth maximization) first and foremost, is an improper use of the Delaware corporate form. (“I simply indicate that the corporate law requires directors, as a matter of their duty of loyalty, to pursue a good faith strategy to maximize profits for the stockholders.”) Chancellor Chandler explained in eBay:
The corporate form in which craigslist operates, however, is not an appropriate vehicle for purely philanthropic ends, at least not when there are other stockholders interested in realizing a return on their investment.
I think this definition of philanthropic easily includes religious ends (or should).
Chancellor Chandler continued:
Jim and Craig opted to form craigslist, Inc. as a for-profit Delaware corporation and voluntarily accepted millions of dollars from eBay as part of a transaction whereby eBay became a stockholder. Having chosen a for-profit corporate form, the craigslist directors are bound by the fiduciary duties and standards that accompany that form. Those standards include acting to promote the value of the corporation for the benefit of its stockholders.
I don’t see how this should play any differently if it applied to religion. Consider, for example, this possible spin:
Jane and Carrie opted to form Religion, Inc., as a for-profit Delaware corporation and voluntarily accepted millions of dollars from BigCo as part of a transaction whereby BigCo became a stockholder. Having chosen a for-profit corporate form, the Religion directors are bound by the fiduciary duties and standards that accompany that form. Those standards include acting to promote the value of the corporation for the benefit of its stockholders.
Further to the point, Chancellor Chandler added:
I cannot accept as valid . . . a corporate policy that specifically, clearly, and admittedly seeks not to maximize the economic value of a for-profit Delaware corporation for the benefit of its stockholders—no matter whether those stockholders are individuals of modest means or a corporate titan of online commerce.
Thus, a for-profit business can be religious in nature—e.g., make religious books or products or sponsor religious seminars—but as a Delaware corporation, the purpose of the entity must be to “promote the value of the corporation for the benefit of its stockholders.”
This is the potential problem with the Hobby Lobby case as to Delaware law. There, the companies had a lot to lose:
If they and their companies refuse to provide contraceptive coverage, they face severe economic consequences: about $475 million per year for Hobby Lobby, $33 million per year for Conestoga, and $15 million per year for Mardel. And if they drop coverage altogether, they could face penalties of roughly $26 million for Hobby Lobby, $1.8 million for Conestoga, and $800,000 for Mardel.
These losses were justified in that case as being necessary to exercise religion, and not to further a corporate purpose. Of course, they had to make that claim, because otherwise they couldn’t get the benefit of RFRA, which requires demonstrating “an honest conviction,” which could be problematic if the reason was couched in business terms, and not religious ones.
Incidentally, I think the business judgment rule should probably protect this decision, anyway, but I don’t know that Delaware law would support that view. In fact, it shouldn't based in recent case law, and I think plainly eBay says no on that one. The Supreme Court says RFRA protects the right to pursue religious ends. It doesn't mean Delaware law does. (Note: Hobby Lobby is not a Delaware entity, so the rules are admittedly different.)
Thus, my fix seek to balance these competing possible outcomes. Tell shareholders your plan, and they can’t question it later, even if that plan costs the company $475 million in losses. Where the law has evolved, I don't think it's fair to suggest it was part of the bargain for all companies, thought maybe investors in Hobby Lobby did know. But it doesn't matter. I thought craigslist’s long-standing business plan was sufficient notice, too. Chancellor Chandler disagreed.