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 . . . .