Sunday, April 26, 2020
In his Wednesday post (here), co-blogger Stefan J. Padfield highlighted a recent development in the arbitration area that I also want to bring to readers’ attention. I’m sure that all BLPB readers are a party to an arbitration agreement as these provisions have become so widespread in consumer adhesion contracts. The New York Times recently ran a fascinating article by Michael Corkery and Jessica Silver-Greenberg, ‘Scared to Death’ by Arbitration: Companies Drowning in their Own System. It details an innovative development in which entrepreneurial lawyers “are leaders in testing a new weapon in arbitration: sheer volume,” which is something the current arbitration system can’t handle.
Arbitration provisions in consumer adhesion contracts generally bar class-action lawsuits and might also bar class-wide arbitration. And it often makes little economic sense for an individual to take a large corporation to arbitration. Not surprisingly, many don’t. Corkery and Silver-Greenberg note that “Over the past few years, the nation’s largest telecom companies, like Comcast and AT&T, have had a combined 330 million customers. Yet annually an average of just 30 people took the companies to arbitration…” Now entrepreneurial lawyers such as Teel Lidow, who runs FairShake, and Travis Lenkner at Chicago law firm Keller Lenkner have entered the picture and are shaking up the consumer arbitration area with mass arbitration filings. It’s going to be a really interesting development to watch. It’s also a great reminder to all of the power of entrepreneurial thinking: “ 'The conventional wisdom might say that arbitration is a bad development for plaintiffs and an automatic win for the companies,’ he said. ‘We don’t see it that way.’ ” (Lenkner, as quoted by Corkery and Silver-Greenberg)
Sunday, April 5, 2020
The tenuous link to business law is this…I was blessed to have a phenomenal first-year contracts professor. Over the years, one of my closest friends (also in that course) and I have reminded each other of the professor’s pearls of wisdom about contracts and life. “Life is a marathon, not a sprint,” he would assure us.
I would imagine that many of us feel in the midst of a marathon these days. As another week in these unusual times begins, I was thinking about a few of the lessons I’ve learned in distance running that were helping me to run the course we’re all on these days. First, the importance of paying attention to your breath (Joan Heminway has written about breath and mindfulness here). Second, if you just keep putting one foot in front of the other, you’ll eventually reach the destination/be done. Third, the need for pacing (likely the point my contracts prof was making). Fourth, you’ve always got one more mile in you than you think you have. Fifth, running with others pushes you to be your best and makes the miles fly by. While this is harder to do at the moment, I know that staying connected (via zoom, Skype, Strava etc.) to encouraging, positive people is especially important in these challenging times.
While Haskell went to the 2020 Olympic men’s marathon trials (here), I only read about them in his post and in Runners World. I first learned about the surprise, unsponsored, second-place finisher, Jake Riley, from the article Jake Riley and His Coach Were ‘Broken.’ Now, They’re Going to the Olympics (here). Amazingly, over the past three years, Riley has apparently dealt with a serious bacterial infection, major Achilles surgery, and a divorce. The article ends by quoting his coach as saying “‘There’s nothing better than seeing a broken man come back,’ Troop said. ‘And when they come back, they’ve got nothing to lose.’” Of course, Riley will now have to wait an additional year for his Olympic run. His story of grit, perseverance, and hope really inspired me. As another week in these unusual times begins, I hope that it might offer inspiration to some of you too.
[Revision: actually, I think my last running post is here, but Haskell has still written two since I wrote it!]
Monday, February 17, 2020
In an email exchange with Stanford business law clinician Jay Mitchell, I learned of this intriguing post on legal document design. Jay takes the design thinking context way beyond my "legal design" idea of using IRAC in corporate finance drafting as a means of ensuring that students are engaging with applicable law and norms in their drafting, and in doing so, he makes a number of interesting observations and points that relate to both document planning and drafting, on the one hand, and teaching planning, drafting, and overall business law practice, on the other. Here are a few.
- "The physical design of clinic work-products and client communications is a constant concern. It’s humbling, idea-generating, and inspiring to look at graphic design and wayfinding books and see great solutions to complex information design challenges."
- "Our world is one of entities; structures; flows of information, money, and property rights; time periods; decision-making processes; legal, tax, and accounting principles; and dense and difficult documents — and then helping clients operationalize all this across multiple functions and geographies. Seems like we need good tools for capturing, assessing, and conveying information. Visual executions can provide those tools. They have great communicative capacity: shape, color, line, line weight, line effects, and white space are all at hand, and, as noted, people just get pictures."
- "Design outlooks and practices seem to distill and operationalize knowledge, from a variety of disciplines, in ways relevant to a lawyer, service provider, professional writer, and producer of tangible products. Our clients notice the attention to user, context, and functionality, as well as factual and legal accuracy, in our advice, client communications, contracts, and governance materials."
- "In a setting where students are drafting and doing other legal tasks for the first time, we need to give them room to try, receive feedback, and try again."
- After advocating sketching (using shapes, colors, etc. on a whiteboard) with students: "Sketching enables us to visibly and slowly break down a situation, and then to build it back up, step by step. It lets, or maybe forces, us to leave out detail; it helps reveal higher-order relationships that are otherwise difficult to discern. It helps us define the problem and possible solutions. Those qualities make it a good tool for identifying the most important features in an unstructured environment . . . ."
- "What are seen as core elements of design thinking are now familiar: observation, empathy, ideation, and experimentation. Designers focus on the realities and needs of people for whom they’re designing a product or process. They frame problems and generate lots of ideas. They test those ideas through low-fidelity prototypes, over and over. They try to “keep people at the center” of their work. These are useful notions for the clinical teacher or senior lawyer working with new lawyers." (footnote omitted)
Jay notes along the way in describing the impact of design thinking on his teaching and practice: "I’ve learned more about legal documents, about their features and footprints, about what they demand of user and thus producer. Which leads to thinking harder about what to make, what to include, and how to present information in effective ways. And to productive discussions with students not only about work-product but also client respect and client reality." Great stuff. I know that our contract drafting curriculum at UT Law focuses on presentation as well as content (as do, I am sure, most similar law school programs of that kind). Jay's post is great food for thought in executing on that focus.
Sunday, December 15, 2019
Prof. Bainbridge recently posted, Here's the thing I don't understand about the implied covenant of good faith and fair dealing. He explains:
In Bandera Master Funds LP v. Boardwalk Pipeline Partners, LP, C.A. No. 2018-0372-JTL (Del. Ch. Oct. 7, 2019), the court reviews the Delaware law of the implied covenant:
“In order to plead successfully a breach of an implied covenant of good faith and fair dealing, the plaintiff must allege a specific implied contractual obligation, a breach of that obligation by the defendant, and resulting damage to the plaintiff.” Fitzgerald v. Cantor, 1998 WL 842316, at *1 (Del. Ch. Nov. 10, 1998). In describing the implied contractual obligation, the plaintiffs must allege facts suggesting “from what was expressly agreed upon that the parties who negotiated the express terms of the contract would have agreed to proscribe the act later complained of . . . had they thought to negotiate with respect to that matter.” Katz v. Oak Indus. Inc., 508 A.2d 873, 880 (Del. Ch. 1986). That is because “[t]he implied covenant seeks to enforce the parties’ contractual bargain by implying only those terms that the parties would have agreed to during their original negotiations if they had thought to address them.” El Paso, 113 A.3d at 184. Accordingly, “[t]he implied covenant is well-suited to imply contractual terms that are so obvious . . . that the drafter would not have needed to include the conditions as express terms in the agreement.” Dieckman, 155 A.3d at 361.
My question is simple: How do you know that the provision was left out because it was obvious? After all, if it was obvious, shouldn't the parties have put it in the contract? Put another way, how do you know the parties did think about it and decide to leave it out?
Agreed. And I think this concept of the implied covenant matters more than ever, now that Delaware allows the elimination of the duty of loyalty in LLCs (my thoughts on that here). Even in allowing parties to eliminate the duty of loyalty in an LLC, such agreements always retain the duty of good faith and fair dealing. The Delaware LLC Act provides (emphasis added):
. . .
(c) To the extent that, at law or in equity, a member or manager or other person has duties (including fiduciary duties) to a limited liability company or to another member or manager or to another person that is a party to or is otherwise bound by a limited liability company agreement, the member’s or manager’s or other person’s duties may be expanded or restricted or eliminated by provisions in the limited liability company agreement; provided, that the limited liability company agreement may not eliminate the implied contractual covenant of good faith and fair dealing.
So what does that mean? I am of the mind that the implied covenant of good faith and fair dealing means that: (1) you get the express terms of the agreement, and (2) the agreement cannot take away all possible reasons for the deal in the first place. As to the latter point, it means, quite simply, even without a duty of loyalty, there must be some reason for the contract to exist at all. So, you may not be entitled to a fair share of proceeds from the agreement, or even a significant share. But there must always be some value (or potential value) to have been gained by entering the agreement. At a minimum, it can't be an agreement to get nothing, no matter what.
As one example, a Delaware court explained that a plaintiff's claim was lacking when the
the incentive [gained by the defendant] complained of is obvious on the face of the OA [operating agreement]. The members, despite creating this incentive, eschewed fiduciary duties, and gave the Board sole discretion to approve the manner of the sale, subject to a single protection for the minority, that the sale be to an unaffiliated third party. . . . [T]he parties to the OA [thus considered] the conditions under which a contractually permissible sale could take place. They avoided the possibility of a self-dealing transaction but otherwise left to the [defendant] the ability to structure a deal favorable to their interests. Viewed in this way, there is no gap in the parties’ agreement to which the implied covenant may apply. The implied covenant, like the rest of our contracts jurisprudence, is meant to enforce the intent of the parties, and not to modify that expressed intent where remorse has set in.
Miller v HCP & Co., C.A. No. 2017-0291-SG (Del. Ch. Feb. 1, 2018). (More commentary on this case here.)
Furthermore, the implied covenant
does not apply when the contract addresses the conduct at issue, but only when the contract is truly silent concerning the matter at hand. Even where the contract is silent, an interpreting court cannot use an implied covenant to re-write the agreement between the parties, and should be most chary about implying a contractual protection when the contract could easily have been drafted to expressly provide for it.
Sunday, December 1, 2019
Over at Kentucky Business Entity Law Blog, Tom Rutledge recently posted Respectfully, I Dissent: Dean Fershee and Elimination of Fiduciary Duties, in response to my recent paper, An Overt Disclosure Requirement for Eliminating the Fiduciary Duty of Loyalty. Tom and I have crossed paths many times over the past few years, and I greatly value his insight, expertise, and opinion. On this one, though, we will have to agree to disagree, but I recommend checking out his writing. You may well agree with him.
I actually agree with Tom in most cases when he says, "I do not believe there is justification for protecting people from the consequences of the contracts into which they enter." Similarly, I generally agree with Tom "that entering into an operating agreement that may be amended without the approval of a particular member constitutes that member placing themselves almost entirely at the mercy of those with the capacity to amend the operating agreement . . . . " Nonetheless, I maintain that there is a subtle but significant difference where, as in Delaware, such changes can be made to completely eliminate (not just reduce or modify) the fiduciary duty of loyalty.
As applied, Tom may be right. Still, until Delaware's recent change, we had a long history, in every U.S. jurisdiction, prohibiting the elimination of the duty of loyalty. It is simply expected, that at some basic level, those in control of an entity owe the entity some level of a duty of loyalty. Because that is such a long-held rule and expectation, I remain convinced that the option to eliminate the duty requires some type of special notice to those entering an entity. Until now, even conceding that a lack of control could put an LLC member "almost entirely at the mercy of those with the capacity to amend the operating agreement," the amending member's power was still limited by the duty of loyalty.
Ultimately, I tend to be a big fan of private ordering and freedom of contract, especially for LLCs. But, when we change fundamental rules, I also think we should more overtly acknowledge those changes, for at least some period of time, to let people catch up.
Saturday, September 7, 2019
Have you ever wanted to learn the basics about blockchain? Do you think it's all hype and a passing fad? Whatever your view, take a look at my new article, Beyond Bitcoin: Leveraging Blockchain to Benefit Business and Society, co-authored with Rachel Epstein, counsel at Hedera Hashgraph. I became interested in blockchain a year ago because I immediately saw potential use cases in supply chain, compliance, and corporate governance. I met Rachel at a Humanitarian Blockchain Summit and although I had already started the article, her practical experience in the field added balance, perspective, and nuance.
The abstract is below:
Although many people equate blockchain with bitcoin, cryptocurrency, and smart contracts, the technology also has the potential to transform the way companies look at governance and enterprise risk management, and to assist governments and businesses in mitigating human rights impacts. This Article will discuss how state and non-state actors use the technology outside of the realm of cryptocurrency. Part I will provide an overview of blockchain technology. Part II will briefly describe how public and private actors use blockchain today to track food, address land grabs, protect refugee identity rights, combat bribery and corruption, eliminate voter fraud, and facilitate financial transactions for those without access to banks. Part III will discuss key corporate governance, compliance, and social responsibility initiatives that currently utilize blockchain or are exploring the possibilities for shareholder communications, internal audit, and cyber security. Part IV will delve into the business and human rights landscape and examine how blockchain can facilitate compliance. Specifically, we will focus on one of the more promising uses of distributed ledger technology -- eliminating barriers to transparency in the human rights arena thereby satisfying various mandatory disclosure regimes and shareholder requests. Part V will pose questions that board members should ask when considering adopting the technology and will recommend that governments, rating agencies, sustainable stock exchanges, and institutional investors provide incentives for companies to invest in the technology, when appropriate. Given the increasing widespread use of the technology by both state and non-state actors and the potential disruptive capabilities, we conclude that firms that do not explore blockchain’s impact risk obsolescence or increased regulation.
Things change so quickly in this space. Some of the information in the article is already outdated and some of the initiatives have expanded. To keep up, you may want to subscribe to newsletters such as Hunton, Andrews, Kurth's Blockchain Legal Resource. For more general information on blockchain, see my post from last year, where I list some of the videos that I watched to become literate on the topic. For additional resources, see here and here.
If you are interested specifically in government use cases, consider joining the Government Blockchain Association. On September 14th and 15th, the GBA is holding its Fall 2019 Symposium, “The Future of Money, Governance and the Law,” in Arlington, Virginia. Speakers will include a chief economist from the World Bank and banking, political, legal, regulatory, defense, intelligence, and law enforcement professionals from around the world. This event is sponsored by the George Mason University Schar School of Policy and Government, Criminal Investigations and Network Analysis (CINA) Center, and the Government Blockchain Association (GBA). Organizers expect over 300 government, industry and academic leaders on the Arlington Campus of George Mason University, either in person or virtually. To find out more about the event go to: http://bit.ly/FoMGL-914.
Blockchain is complex and it's easy to get overwhelmed. It's not the answer to everything, but I will continue my focus on the compliance, governance, and human rights implications, particularly for Dodd-Frank and EU conflict minerals due diligence and disclosure. As lawyers, judges, and law students, we need to educate ourselves so that we can provide solid advice to legislators and business people who can easily make things worse by, for example, drafting laws that do not make sense and developing smart contracts with so many loopholes that they cause jurisdictional and enforcement nightmares.
Notwithstanding the controversy surrounding blockchain, I'm particularly proud of this article and would not have been able to do it without my co-author, Rachel, my fantastic research assistants Jordan Suarez, Natalia Jaramillo, and Lauren Miller from the University of Miami School of Law, and the student editors at the Tennessee Journal of Business Law. If you have questions or please post them below or reach out to me at firstname.lastname@example.org.
September 7, 2019 in Compliance, Conferences, Contracts, Corporate Governance, Corporations, CSR, Current Affairs, Financial Markets, Human Rights, Law Reviews, Lawyering, Legislation, Marcia Narine Weldon, Securities Regulation, Shareholders, Technology | Permalink | Comments (0)
Friday, August 2, 2019
Later today, the students in my nine-week online Transactional Lawyering: Drafting and Negotiating Contracts Course will breathe a sigh of relief. They will submit their final contracts, and their work will be done. They can now start reading for their Fall classes knowing that they have completed the work for their required writing credit. My work, on the other hand, won’t end for quite a while. Although this post will discuss teaching an online course, much of my advice would work for a live, in person class as well.
If you’ve ever taught a transactional drafting course, you know that’s a lot of work. You are in a seemingly never ending cycle of developing engaging content, teaching the material, answering questions, reviewing drafts, and grading the final product. Like any writing course, you’re in constant editing and feedback mode with the students.
If you’ve ever taught an online course, you know how much work it can be. I taught asynchronously, meaning I uploaded materials and the students had a specific time within which to complete assignments, typically one week or more. Fortunately, I had help from the University of Miami’s instructional design team, otherwise, I would likely have been a disaster. They provided me with a template for each module, which forced me to really think through the objectives for each class session, not just the course as a whole. In my traditional courses I have learning objectives, but I have never gone into so much detail either in my head or in writing about what I wanted the student to get out of each individual class.
Teaching a drafting course online was much more work than I expected, but I can’t wait to do it again. If you’re thinking about it, learn from my travails and triumphs. First, here are my suggested “Do’s”:
- Find a way to build community: I wanted to ensure that students felt connected to me. I scripted a welcome video and the instructional design team filmed and edited it. This way students saw my face. I wanted the students to see each other as well, so I required them to film a 2-minute introductory video of themselves and upload it so that students could “see” their classmates. Students then commented on their peers’ videos welcoming them to the class. I did short videos for most of the modules, but these did not always show my face. No video was more than 10 minutes long because apparently today’s students can’t pay attention for too much longer than that.
- Have students work in groups (at first): I divided the 16 students into 4 law firms based in part on what I saw in their videos. I wanted some diversity of gender, race, and experience in the groups. Students drafted a law firm agreement outlining how they would interact with each other, meet deadlines, and resolve disputes. They also picked a firm name and managing partner. They assessed themselves and each other as group members based on criteria that I provided. The group work minimized the amount of feedback that I had to provide. As a group, they drafted the law firm agreement, a client engagement letter, and worked on a short contract. Some assignments were graded and some were ungraded. The group work counted for 10% of the grade. This percentage wasn’t enough of the grade to cause panic, and the team assessment ensured that they didn’t slack off and benefit from their peers’ hard work.
- Mix it up: For each class, I had students review a presentation on Echo 360. Often, they answered questions that I posed in the presentation or did exercises from Tina Stark’s contract drafting book. On other occasions, they posted responses to prompts on the discussion boards and commented (constructively) on other responses, citing the rule or principle that buttressed their position.
- Make them keep track of their time and do a bill: Every lawyer hates tracking time, but it’s a necessity. I tell the students that they’ll thank me later. Each student, even on group assignments had to track their time and turn in a bill. This helped me gauge how the groups and students compared to each other. I also knew which student worked on which parts of the contracts.
- Let them negotiate: After the group work portion of the course ended,the students negotiated the terms of their final contract using a set of secret facts. I required them to develop and turn in a negotiation strategy using materials and videos that I put together. Armed with their BATNAs, WATNAs, and ZOPAs, I told them to spend no more than one hour negotiating. I required them to film their negotiations, upload them, and send them to me. They then worked on individual term sheets (for a grade). After the negotiations ended and I had received all term sheets, I released the secret facts and had the students assess themselves and their opposing counsel on their negotiation skills and tactics. I also provided feedback to each student on their negotiation performance and term sheets.
- Require them to communicate with the client:I required a 1-2 page client cover memo or email for almost every assignment focusing on tone, language, use of legalese, etc. In my comments, I explained the importance of this type of legal writing and of tailoring the language to different types of business clients. When they worked on NDAs, I reminded that them that client may never actually read the contract, so they needed to ensure that the cover memo was sufficiently detailed to provide material information without being overwhelming.
- Make them teach: They say that when you teach, you learn twice. I required the each student to develop a 5-7 minute video on an assigned topic. Each student “presented” to either a group of lay/business people or a group of junior associates attending a CLE. They then had to write a blog post of between 750-1000 words. I required students to watch each other’s videos and comment as either a business person or a junior lawyer. This provided a review of the class for the viewers. This assignment counted for 10% of the grade, but as an extra incentive to take the assignment seriously, the student with the “best” video received an extra week to turn in the joint final contract, meaning that the opposing counsel also benefitted. FYI, I was generally blown away by the videos.
- Allow them to use precedents and then instruct them on the limitations: Many of the students had never seen an NDA, and I allowed them to use precedents. Most were surprised by how many comments I had on their final products, especially since many of the precedents came from big firms. This was a valuable lesson for them on precision and the dangers of blind cutting and pasting.
- Make them redline and draft a contract with opposing counsel:The final assignment required them to draft a contract based on their negotiated terms. They soon realized that they had to do additional negotiation because some of the terms did not make sense once they started to memorialize them.
- Have office hours and use video conferencing:I practically had to beg the students to have office hours with me. They had no problem emailing with questions, but generally didn’t utilize my office hours, which were incredibly flexible. I offered online and in person hours, but only two students met with me during the semester outside of the live mandatory office hours. I had a mandatory live grading session by video to discuss their NDAs, their upcoming negotiations, and any questions they had about the course. During that live grading session, I acted as a partner in their law firm and then stepped into professor role.
What didn’t work as well? As you can imagine, to do the job correctly, I had a LOT of work to do. I clearly gave too much work over a nine-week period, because I know much work I had to do to give them feedback. I just wanted them to be armed with the skills they will need in the real world, but I overdid it. And this meant that sometimes I did not meet my own deadlines for getting feedback to them. Truthfully, I imposed some of that burden on myself. I offered students the chance to turn in drafts of almost every assignment for feedback. About 25-30 percent of the students took me up on that offer, but every week, I emailed all of the students with tips to improve based on the trends that I saw. In retrospect, I would give fewer assignments over a longer period of time, and would better utilize the discussion boards to foster that sense of live class discussion.
After all of that, I’m gearing up to do it again for the Fall, this time over a 15-week period. Even though I will have more time, both I and the students will have other classes. I’m also teaching business associations and legal writing, and the students will have their own classes, jobs, law reviews, and extracurricular activities to contend with.
If you have any questions or tips, leave them below or email me at email@example.com. I plan to learn more about course development at the University of Denver hybrid/online learning conference on September 26th. I’ll update this post after that conference. In the meantime, this weekend, I’ll be retooling my syllabus based on my summer experience and what I’ve learned this week at SEALS. Correction, I’ll retool in between grading the joint contracts.
Friday, July 26, 2019
I'm at the tail end of teaching my summer transactional lawyering course. Throughout the semester, I've focused my students on the importance of representations, warranties, covenants, conditions, materiality, and knowledge qualifiers. Today I came across an article from Practical Law Company that discussed the use of #MeToo representations in mergers and acquisitions agreements, and I plan to use it as a teaching tool next semester. According to the article, which is behind a firewall so I can't link to it, thirty-nine public merger agreements this year have had such clauses. This doesn't surprise me. Last year I spoke on a webinar regarding #MeToo and touched on the the corporate governance implications and the rise of these so-called "Harvey Weinstein" clauses.
Generally, according to Practical Law Company, target companies in these agreements represent that: 1) no allegations of sexual harassment or sexual misconduct have been made against a group or class of employees at certain seniority levels; 2) no allegations have been made against independent contractors; and 3) the company has not entered into any settlement agreements related to these kinds of allegations. The target would list exceptions on a disclosure schedule, presumably redacting the name of the accuser to preserve privacy. These agreements often have a look back, typically between two and five years with five years being the most common. Interestingly, some agreements include a material adverse effect clause, which favor the target.
Here's an example of a representation related to "Labor Matters" from the June 9, 2019 agreement between Salesforce.com, Inc. and Tableau Software, Inc.
b) The Company and each Company Subsidiary are and have been since January 1, 2016 in compliance with all applicable Law respecting labor, employment, immigration, fair employment practices, terms and conditions of employment, workers' compensation, occupational safety, plant closings, mass layoffs, worker classification, sexual harassment, discrimination, exempt and non-exempt status, compensation and benefits, wages and hours and the Worker Adjustment and Retraining Notification Act of 1988, as amended, except where such non-compliance has not had, and would not reasonably be expected to have, individually or in the aggregate, a Company Material Adverse Effect.
c) To the Company's Knowledge, in the last five (5) years, (i) no allegations of sexual harassment have been made against any employee at the level of Vice President or above, and (ii) neither the Company nor any of the Company Subsidiaries have entered into any settlement agreements related to allegations of sexual harassment or misconduct by any employee at the level of Vice President or above.
The agreement has the following relevant definitions:
"Knowledge" will be deemed to be, as the case may be, the actual knowledge of (a) the individuals set forth on Section 1.1(a) of the Parent Disclosure Letter with respect to Parent or Purchaser or (b) the individuals set forth on Section 1.1(a) of the Company Disclosure Letter with respect to the Company, in each case after reasonable inquiry of those employees of such Party and its Subsidiaries who would reasonably be expected to have actual knowledge of the matter in question.
Even though I like the idea of these reps. in theory, I have some concerns. First, I hate to be nitpicky, but after two decades of practicing employment law on the defense side, I have some questions. What's the definition of "sexual misconduct"? What happens of the company handbook or policies do not define "sexual misconduct"? The Salesforce.com agreement did not define it. So how does the target know what to disclose? Next, how should an agreement define "sexual harassment"? What if the allegation would not pass muster under Title VII or even under a more flexible, more generous definition in an employee handbook? When I was in house and drafting policies, a lot of crude behavior could be "harassment" even if it wouldn't survive the pleading requirements for a motion to dismiss. Does a company have to disclose an allegation of harassment that's not legally cognizable? And what about the definition of "allegation"? The Salesforce.com agreement did not define this either. Is it an allegation that has been reported through proper channels? Does the target have to go back to all of the executives' current and former managers and HR personnel as a part of due diligence to make sure there were no allegations that were not investigated or reported through proper channels? What if there were rumors? What if there was a conclusively false allegation (it's rare, but I've seen it)? What if the allegation could not be proved through a thorough, best in class investigation? How does the target disclose that without impugning the reputation of the accused?
Second, I'm not sure why independent contractors would even be included in these representations because they're not the employees of the company. If an independent contractor harassed one of the target's employees, that independent contractor shouldn't even be an issue in a representation because s/he should not be on the premises. Moreover, the contractor, and not the target company, should be paying any settlement. I acknowledge that a company is responsible for protecting its employees from harassment, including from contractors and vendors. But a company that pays the settlement should ensure that the harasser/contractor can't come near the worksite or employees ever again. If that's the case, why the need for a representation about the contractors? Third, companies often settle for nuisance value or to avoid the cost of litigation even when the investigation results are inconclusive or sometimes before an investigation has ended. How does the company explain that in due diligence? How much detail does the target disclose? Finally, what happens if the company legally destroyed documents as part of an established and enforced document retention and destruction process? Does that excuse disclosure even if someone might have a vague memory of some unfounded allegation five years ago?
But maybe I protest too much. Given the definition of "knowledge" above, in-house and outside counsel for target companies will have to ask a lot more and a lot tougher questions. On the other hand, given the lack of clarity around some of the key terms such as "allegations," "harassment," and "misconduct," I expect there to be some litigation around these #MeToo representations in the future. I'll see if my Fall students can do a better job of crafting definitions than the BigLaw counsel did.
July 26, 2019 in Compliance, Contracts, Corporate Governance, Corporate Personality, Corporations, Current Affairs, Employment Law, Ethics, Law School, Lawyering, Litigation, M&A, Management, Marcia Narine Weldon, Teaching | Permalink | Comments (0)
Tuesday, July 2, 2019
Veil piercing continues its randomness. Back in April, in Hawai'i Supreme Court decision, Calipjo v. Purdy, 144 Hawai'i 266, 439 P.3d 218 (2019), the court determined that there was evidence to support a trial court jury's decision to pierce the veil of an multiple entities and hold the sole member/shareholder of the entities liable. (An appellate court had determined that there was insufficient evidence to support veil piercing.)
The decision may be sound, but the evidence for the decision makes the outcome seemingly inevitable. In determining there was evidence to support the jury's decision, the court notes the plaintiff's allegations were that "sole ownership and control is one of many factors that can establish alter ego and, therefore, evidence of Purdy’s ownership and control was pertinent to this claim." The court then explains,
In this case, the jury was presented with evidence that Purdy exercised exclusive ownership and control over Regal Corp. and Regal LLC. Purdy testified that he was the sole shareholder, director, and officer of Regal Corp. and the sole member and manager of Regal LLC. This court has held that “sole ownership of all of the stock in a corporation by one individual” is one relevant factor to determine alter ego. Id. (quoting Associated Vendors, 26 Cal. Rptr. at 814). Purdy’s testimony supports the jury’s determination that Purdy exercised exclusive ownership and control over Regal Corp. and Regal LLC; it constitutes evidence that Purdy was the sole owner and manager of either company.
Note, though, that the plaintiff claimed that "sole ownership and control ... can establish alter ego." The court more accurately states that ownership and control are a factor. They are not dispositive or else limited liability for a single-member LLC, corporation, or other limited liability entity would be a fiction. The jury instructions, though, seem to eliminate the possibility that an entity and a single shareholder or member could be separate. The jury was told:
You should consider the following facts in determining whether or not to disregard the legal entity of Regal Capital Corporation and return a verdict in favor of plaintiff against Defendant Jack Purdy, as an individual.
One, whether or not defendant Jack Purdy owned all or substantially all the stock in Regal Capital Corporation; two, whether or not Jack Purdy exercised discretion and control over the management of Defendant Regal Capital Corporation; three, whether or not Defendant Jack Purdy directly or indirectly furnished all or substantially all of the financial investment in Defendant Regal Capital Corporation; four, whether or not Regal Capital Corporation was adequately financed either originally or subsequently for the business in which it was to engage.
Five, whether or not there was actual participation in the affairs of Regal Capital Corporation by its stockholders and whether stock was issued to them. Six, whether or not Regal Capital Corporation observed the [formalities] of doing business as a corporation such as the holding of regular meetings, the issuance of stock, the filing of necessary reports and similar matters. Seven, whether or not Defendant Regal Capital Corporation [dealt] exclusively with Defendant Jack Purdy, directly or indirectly in the real estate sales development activities in this case. Eight, whether or not Defendant Regal Capital Corporation existed merely to do a part of business of Defendant Jack Purdy.
So, here was have an undercapitalization factor, and that could be separate from the shareholder/member, and we have the traditional "corporate formalities" test, but even there, these instructions imply that the entity must have additional shareholders to be "real." For numbers one, two, three, five, seven, and eight, a jury would almost always have to find that those factors would support veil piercing for any sole shareholder corporation or single-member LLC. I don't think that's either the intent or the substance of current law in most jurisdictions, though the Hawai'i Supreme Court clearly disagrees with me.
In this case, there seems to be at least some evidence of fraud, and I'm more than willing to defer to a jury if they determined that the defendant had sole control of his entities and he used those entities to commit fraud. I just object to court's apparent comfort level with the idea having sole control of an entity or entities, and exercising that control, on its own suggests something nefarious.
I know people use LLCs and corporations to engage in all sorts of bad behavior, and I'd like to see that punished more often than it seems to be. But relaxing the application of legal standards to get there is not a good way to do it. If the law should be changed, then legislatures should get to work on that. If we think single-owner entities are a bad idea (I don't think they are inherently so), let's deal with that through legislation so that at least everyone knows the rules.
Ultimately, it's not as though current veil piercing jurisprudence has been clear or sound or predictable. There has always been a random nature to it. However, for single-member entities, if the current trends continue, the randomness of veil piercing will not attach not to the outcome of a lawsuit -- it will attach to whether or not someone brings suit at all.
Friday, May 31, 2019
Last week, I attended the American Law Institute (ALI) Annual Meeting in Washington, DC. (I am back in The District this week for the Law and Society Association Annual Meeting. More on that in a later post.) Many important project drafts and projects were vetted at the ALI meeting. As many readers know, however, the tentative draft of the Restatement of the Law, Consumer Contracts generated some significant debate in advance of and at the conference. The membership approved part of the draft of the project at the meeting, but much still is to come.
As many of you likely know, there has been significant litigation about the enforceability of these kinds of provisions in form agreements--and whether a valid contract has been formed at all. See, e.g., this article from earlier this year. As the debates on the Restatement proceeded at the meeting, I found myself thinking about whether the common law of contracts is the best way to handle legal challenges to standard form contracts. Something inside me just kept screaming for a more tailored legislative solution . . . .
After conclusion of the ALI Annual Meeting, I found this testimony before the Senate Judiciary Committee from Myriam Gilles, Paul R. Verkuil Research Chair and Professor at Cardozo Law. She notes in that testimony:
[W]hen pre-dispute arbitration clauses and class action bans are forced upon consumers and employees in take-it-or-leave-it, standard-form agreements, “the probability of litigation positions is highly asymmetrical: the seller is far more likely to be the defendant in any dispute, and the consumer the plaintiff.” There is no negotiation, no choice, and the resulting arbitration procedures are not, in truth, intended to provide a forum to resolve claims. The one and only objective of forced, pre-dispute, class-banning arbitration clauses is to suppress and bury claims. The whole point is that consumers and employees seeking redress for broadly distributed small- value harms cannot and will not pursue one-on-one arbitrations.
(footnotes omitted) Professor Gilles recommended a legislative solution.
I do not teach contracts. Perhaps those of you who do have comments on this matter that negate what I have written here. If so, please share them. In general, as a corporate finance lawyer, I favor private ordering. But consumer contracts are a whole other animal, distinct from merger or acquisition and other corporate finance agreements. Perhaps we should decrease pressure on the courts by focusing some legislative attention on the appropriate form of standardized terms in consumer contracts that operate as contracts of adhesion or otherwise offend public policy. I am not sure quite what that looks like overall, but the idea seems to bear further thought . . . .
Tuesday, February 19, 2019
Monday, February 4, 2019
Our friend and colleague Dan Kleinberger sent the following request along to me a few days ago on behalf of the LLCs, Partnerships and Unincorporated Entities Committee of the Business Law Section of the American Bar Association:
At the Spring meeting of the ABA Business Law Section in Vancouver, on Thursday, March 28, 2019 from 2:30pm – 4:30pm, the LLCPUE Committee is sponsoring a panel entitled, “Lessons from the Trenches for Transactional Lawyers.” Here is a brief description:
Avoiding errors in transactional documents -- insights from attorneys who have seen errors play out in litigation: two litigators (including one who defends attorney malpractice claims), a transactional lawyer who often plays clean up, and an expert witness who frequently testifies in cases arising from problematic language in deal documents.
If you have some examples of problematic language, favorite (or disfavored) cases, or “occasions of sin” to share in, the panel would be grateful. The presentation will not be merely war stories. Instead, the panelists will present various categories of errors and occasions for error, as well as practical suggestions for avoiding error. However, the more examples the panel has from which to work, the more useful the categorizations will be.
Redact as you see fit or transform examples into illustrations. Please send info to: firstname.lastname@example.org. We will not identify the sources of examples unless you ask for attribution.
Thank you for your consideration.
I hope that some of our readers have valuable examples to contribute and will send them on to Dan.
Tuesday, December 18, 2018
Sometimes I think courts are just trolling me (and the rest of us who care about basic entity concepts). The following quotes (and my commentary) are related to the newly issued case, Estes v. Hayden, No. 2017-CA-001882-MR, 2018 WL 6600225, at *1 (Ky. Ct. App. Dec. 14, 2018):
"Estes and Hayden were business partners in several limited liability corporations, one of which was Success Management Team, LLC (hereinafter “Success”)." Maybe they had some corporations and LLCs, but the case only references were to LLCs (limited liability companies).
But wait, it gets worse: "Hayden was a minority shareholder in, and the parties had no operating agreement regarding, Success." Recall that Success is an LLC. There should not be shareholders in an LLC. Members owning membership interests, yes. Shareholders, no.
Apparently, Success was anything but, with Hayden and Estes being sued multiple times related to residential home construction where fraudulent conduct was alleged. Hayden sued Estes to dissolve and wind down all the parties’ business entities claiming a pattern of fraudulent conduct by Estes. Ultimately, the two entered a settlement agreement related to (among other things) back taxes, including an escrow account, which was (naturally) insufficient to cover the tax liability. This case followed, with Estes seeking contribution from Hayden, while Hayden claimed he had been released.
Estes paid the excess tax liability and filed a complaint against Hayden, "arguing Hayden’s breach of the Success partnership agreement and that Estes never agreed to assume one hundred percent of any remaining tax liabilities of Success." Now there is a partnership agreement? Related to the minority shareholder's obligations to an LLC? [Banging head on desk.]
The entity structures to these business arrangements are a mess, and it makes the opinion kind of a mess, though I would suggest the court could have at least tried to straighten it out a bit. It even appears that the court got a little turned around, as it states, "While Estes may have at one time been liable for a portion of Success’s tax liabilities incurred from 2006 to 2010, once the parties signed the Settlement Agreement, his liability ended pursuant to the release provisions contained therein." I think they meant that Hayden may have been liable but no longer was following the release, especially given that the court affirmed the grant of summary judgment to Hayden.
Friday, December 7, 2018
In Hexion Specialty Chemicals, Inc. v. Huntsman Corp., 965 A.2d 715, 730 (Del. Ch. 2008) – a case I worked on as a judicial clerk – the court wrote, “[m]any commentators have noted that Delaware courts have never found a material adverse effect to have occurred in the context of a merger agreement.”
That statement is no longer true.
Today--in a 3 page opinion--the Delaware Supreme Court affirmed the 240+ page opinion by Vice Chancellor Travis Laster in Akorn, Inc. v. Fresenius Kabi, AG, et al., which held that Akorn triggered the Material Adverse Effect ("MAE") clause of the merger agreement at issue.
As the Chancery Daily reports, and as is clear looking at the recent opinions, the Delaware Supreme Court opinion does not provide much reasoning for its decision to affirm, but the Court of Chancery opinion does provide plenty of guidance. In the first few pages, the Court of Chancery notes that Akorn experienced a "dramatic, unexpected, and company-specific downturn in...business that began in the quarter after signing." The Court of Chancery also notes the importance of whistleblower letters and issues with Akron and the FDA.
Also of interest, the court notes that this was an expedited case -- a real benefit of the Delaware Court of Chancery. The parties only had 11 weeks leading up to the trial. At the five day trial, there were 54 depositions transcripts lodged, 1,892 exhibits introduced into evidence, and 16 live witnesses (including 7 experts). Those poor lawyers -- and judicial clerks!
Tuesday, November 27, 2018
Last week I posted Can LLC Members Be Employees? It Depends (Because of Course It Does), where I concluded that "as far as I am concerned, LLC members can also be LLCs employees, even though the general answer is that they are not. " I thought I would follow up today with an example of an LLC member who is also an employee.
I am not teaching Business Associations until next semester, but it galls me a little that I did not note this case last week, as it is a case that I teach as part of the section on fiduciary duties in Delaware.
Genitrix, LLC, is a Delaware limited liability company formed to develop and market biomedical technology. Dr. Segal founded the Company in 1996 following his postdoctoral fellowship at the Whitehead Institute for Biomedical Research. Originally formed as a Maryland limited liability company, Genitrix was moved in 1997 to Delaware at the behest of Dr. H. Fisk Johnson, who invested heavily.
Equity in Genitrix is divided into three classes of membership. In exchange for the patent rights he obtained from the Whitehead Institute, Segal's capital account was credited with $500,000. This allowed him to retain approximately 55% of the Class A membership interest. . . .Under the [LLC] Agreement, the Board of Member Representatives (the “Board”) manages the business and affairs of the Company. As originally contemplated by the Agreement, the Board consisted of four members: two of whom were appointed by Johnson and two of whom were appointed by Segal. In early 2007, however, the balance of power seemingly shifted. . . .Dr. Andrew Segal, fresh out of residency training, worked for the Whitehead Institute for Biomedical Research . . . [and when he] left the Whitehead Institute and obtained a license to certain patent rights related to his research.
With these patent rights in hand, Dr. Segal formed Genitrix. Intellectual property rights alone, however, could not fund the research, testing, and trials necessary to bring Dr. Segal's ideas to some sort of profitable fruition. Consequently, Segal sought and obtained capital for the Company. Originally, Segal served as both President and Chief Executive Officer, and the terms of his employment were governed by contract (the “Segal Employment Agreement”). Under the Segal Employment Agreement, any intellectual property rights developed by Dr. Segal during his tenure with Genitrix would be assigned to the Company.
Fisk Ventures, LLC v. Segal, No. CIV.A. 3017-CC, 2008 WL 1961156, at *2 (Del. Ch. May 7, 2008) (emphasis added) (footnotes omitted).
Co-blogger Joan Heminway noted in a comment to last week's post that what it means to be an employee can vary, based on statutory and other conditions, which is certainly true. I stand by my prior conclusion that it depends on the case whether a particular member of an LLC is an employee, and even that can vary based on context. Thus, LLC members are not inherently employees, and perhaps most of the time they are not, but it's also true that LLC members can be employees.
Finally, as to the Fisk Ventures case, in case you're curious, the short of it is that Fisk decided not to provide additional financing to Genitirx, and Segal sued claimed that not doing so breached certain fiduciary duties under the LLC agreement and further various acts "tortiously interfered with the Segal Employment Agreement." Ultimately, Chancellor Chandler determined that there was no duty breached, the obligation of good faith and fair dealing did not block certain members from exercising express contractual rights, and the agreement's clause disclaming any fiduciary duties was valid.
Tuesday, October 30, 2018
Tom Rutledge, at Kentucky Business Entity Law Blog, writes about a curious recent decision in which the Kentucky Court of Appeals overrule a trial court, holding that the law of piercing the veil required the LLC veil to be pierced. Tavadia v. Mitchell, No. 2017-CA-001358-MR, 2018 WL 5091048 (Ky. App. Oct. 19, 2018).
Here are the basics (Tom provides an even more detailed description):
Sheri Mitchell formed One Sustainable Method Recycling, LLC (OSM) in 2013. Mitchell initially a 99% owner and the acting CEO with one other member holding 1%. Mitchell soon asked Behram Tavadia to invest in the company, which he did.
He loaned OSM $40K at 6% interest from his business Tavadia Enterprises, Inc. (to be repaid $1,000 per month, plus 5% of annual OSM profits). There was no personal guarantee from Mitchell. OSM then received a $150,000 a business development from METCO, which Tavadia personally guaranteed and pledged certain bonds as security.
Two years (and no loan payments) later under the original $40,000 loan, Tavadia agreed to delay repayment. OSM and Tavadia the created a second loan for $250,000, refinancing the original $40,000 and a subsequent Tavadia $12,000 loan. This loan provided Tavadia a 25% ownership interest in OSM, but there was still no personal guarantee on the loan. Mitchell claimed this loan was needed to purchase essential equipment (no equipment was purchased). OSM then received a $20,000 loan from Fundworks, LLC, which was secured by Mitchell, who signed Tavadia’s name for OSM and she signed a personal guarantee in Tavadia’s name (both without permission).
Not surprisingly, in October 2015, OSM stopped operations, the equipment was sold, and more than half of the sale proceeds were deposited in Mitchell’s personal bank account, with the rest going to OSM’s account. OSM (naturally) defaulted on the Fundworks’ loan, which Tavadia learned about when Fundworks demanded repayment. The METCO loan also defaulted, and Tavadia was asked to provide funds from the bonds he provided as collateral.
Okay, so it sounds like Mitchell took advantage of Tavadia and engaged in some elements of fraud. What I can’t figure out from this case is why we’re talking about veil piercing.
First, the court states: “The evidence presented at trial demonstrated that Mitchell diverted OSM assets into her own account.” Tavadia v. Mitchell, No. 2017-CA-001358-MR, 2018 WL 5091048, at *5 (Ky. Ct. App. Oct. 19, 2018). So that money Mitchell owes to OSM, which owes money to Tavadia. The court noted that at least half the funds from the sale of OSM equipment went into Mitchell’s personal account. That needs to go back to OSM, and if veil piercing has value, then a simple order of repayment should be, too.
Second, the Fundworks loan, which Mitchell signed for, is really her loan, not Tavadia’s. He did not know about it until they sought payment, so it wasn’t ratified, and there is no other indication she has authority to enter into the contract.
At a minimum, these funds are owed Tavadia (or OSM) and should be itemized as such. Presumably, that is not enough money to make Tavadia whole. And I don’t know he should be. To the extent there were legitimate (if poorly executed) business attempts, he is on the hook for those losses. As such, I don’t see this as a veil-piercing case.
Instead, Tavadia should be able to sue Mitchell for her fraudulent actions that harmed him directly. And Tavadia should be able to make OSM sue Mitchell for improper transfers and fraud.
Maybe there are other theories for recovery, too, but veil piercing should not be one. Mitchell did not use the entity to commit fraud. She committed fraud directly. Just because there is an entity, plus an unpaid loan, it does not make this a veil-piercing case. In fact, because Tavadia is a member of the LLC, I think there is a reasonable argument that (absent truly unique circumstances) veil piercing cannot apply.
I am sympathetic that Tavadia was taken advantage of, and I think that Mitchell should have a significant repayment obligation to him, but I just don’t think this claim should be rooted in veil piercing. At a minimum, like in administrative law, one should have to exhaust his or her remedies before proceeding to a veil-piercing theory.
Monday, September 24, 2018
This past Friday, Burr & Forman LLP and the Clayton Center for Entrepreneurial Law at the University of Tennessee College of Law (including its business law journal, Transactions: The Tennessee Journal of Business Law), cosponsored a conference entittled "Law and Business Tech: Cybersecurity, Blockchain and Electronic Transactions." This was, as you may recognize, the second business law conference UT Law sponsored in a week's time (the first being the Business Law Prof Blog symposium, "Connecting the Threads II," the week before). It has been a busy time for business law faculty and students at UT Law!
(Parenthetically, I will note here that one of the attendees at Friday's event, who also had been at the Business Law Prof blog symposium, came back to this past week's conference because he was so jazzed up about Marcia's presentation at the first event--which she mentions here and here. Thanks, Marcia, for encouraging this interest in blockchain technology in our legal community!)
At Friday's conference, I moderated and participated in a panel on "The Coming Second Wave of Digital and other Electronic Signatures in Commerce." The panelists included Ed Snow of Burr & Forman and Katy Blackwell from SIGNiX. The panel walked through a history and course of conduct from handwritten signatures to electronic signatures to digital signatures, discussing the transitions from one to another (which are, as yet, incomplete). Interesting questions emerged as among us as to, e.g., why banking/credit transactions and mergers/acquisitions tend to lag behind in the adoption of new signature technologies. (Your thoughts are welcomed.)
At the end of the prepared program, my co-panelists asked me to speak about Tennessee's adoption of a digital signature statute back in the spring. This was another of the legislative review projects that I have undertaken as a member of the Tennessee Bar Association Business Section Executive Council. We were given 24-48 hours to comment on a digital signature bill that had been introduced in the Tennessee General Assembly based on an Arizona statute adopted in 2017 (information available here). Although I personally thought the bill/statutory revision was likely unnecessary and would have preferred to spend more time studying it before commenting on it, two of us on the Executive Council pooled comments on the draft bill, which also received comments from other quarters.
The ostensible legislative policy was to ensure the enforceability of legally valid and binding transactions occurring in a distributed ledger environment. Tennessee proponents of the bill wanted to support business in this environment, as I noted in commentary quoted in this article. With that in mind, two issues were, in the short time we had, important.
Tuesday, September 4, 2018
I am teaching Sports Law this semester, which is always fun. I like to highlight other areas of the law for my students so that they can see that Sports Law is really an amalgamation of other areas: contract law, labor law, antitrust law, and yes, business organizations. I sometimes cruise the internet for examples to make my point that they really need to have a firm grounding the basics of many areas of law to be a good sports lawyer. Today, I found a solid example, and not in a good way.
I found a site providing advice about "How to Start a Sports Agency" at the site https://www.managerskills.org. This is site is new to me. Anyway, it starts off okay:
Ask any successful sports agent: education is the foundation upon which you will build your business. The first step is to earn your bachelor’s degree from an appropriately accredited institution.
. . . .
Once you have obtained your bachelor’s degree, the next step will be to pursue your master’s degree. Alternately, you may choose to pursue a law degree.
While a law degree is not required, the skills you acquire during your studies will be particularly beneficial when it comes to negotiating contracts for your clients. Most major leagues, including the NFL and the NBA, requires their sports agents to possess a master’s degree.
All true. A law degree should also help when it comes to figuring out your entity choice. The site's advice continues:
The next step is to choose a professional name for your business and to create a limited liability corporation (LLC). If you have one or more business partners, then you will need to create a limited liability partnership (LLP).
Yikes. I mean, yikes. First, an LLC is a limited liability company!
Second, I believe that after Massachusetts allowed single-member LLCs in 2003, all states allowed the creation of single-member LLCs, so an LLC is an option. An LLP might be an option, and some professional entities for certain lawyers might be an option (or requirement), such as the PLLC or PC. But the idea that one needs to choose an LLP if there is more than one person participating in the business is flawed. It is correct that to be an LLP, there would need to be more than one person, but this is not transitive.
Anyway, while not great advice, this gives me some good material for class tomorrow. I will probably start with, "Don't believe everything you read on the Internet."
Saturday, September 1, 2018
Did I lose you with the title to this post? Do you have no idea what a DAO is? In its simplest terms, a DAO is a decentralized autonomous organization, whose decisions are made electronically by a written computer code or through the vote of its members. In theory, it eliminates the need for traditional documentation and people for governance. This post won't explain any more about DAOs or the infamous hack of the Slock.it DAO in 2016. I chose this provocative title to inspire you to read an article entitled Legal Education in the Blockchain Revolution.
The authors Mark Fenwick, Wulf A. Kaal, and Erik P. M. Vermeulen discuss how technological innovations, including artificial intelligence and blockchain will change how we teach and practice law related to real property, IP, privacy, contracts, and employment law. If you're a practicing lawyer, you have a duty of competence. You need to know what you don't know so that you avoid advising on areas outside of your level of expertise. It may be exciting to advise a company on tax, IP, securities law or other legal issues related to cryptocurrency or blockchain, but you could subject yourself to discipline for doing so without the requisite background. If you teach law, you will have students clamoring for information on innovative technology and how the law applies. Cornell University now offers 28 courses on blockchain, and a professor at NYU's Stern School of Business has 235 people in his class. Other schools are scrambling to find professors qualified to teach on the subject.
To understand the hype, read the article on the future of legal education. The abstract is below:
The legal profession is one of the most disrupted sectors of the consulting industry today. The rise of Legal Tech, artificial intelligence, big data, machine learning, and, most importantly, blockchain technology is changing the practice of law. The sharing economy and platform companies challenge many of the traditional assumptions, doctrines, and concepts of law and governance, requiring litigators, judges, and regulators to adapt. Lawyers need to be equipped with the necessary skillsets to operate effectively in the new world of disruptive innovation in law. A more creative and innovative approach to educating lawyers for the 21st century is needed.
For more on how blockchain is changing business and corporate governance, come by my talk at the University of Tennessee on September 14th where you will also hear from my co-bloggers. In case you have no interest in my topic, it's worth the drive/flight to hear from the others. The descriptions of the sessions are below:
Session 1: Breach of Fiduciary Duty and the Defense of Reliance on Experts
Many corporate statutes expressly provide that directors in discharging their duties may rely in good faith upon information, opinions, reports, or statements from officers, board committees, employees, or other experts (such as accountants or lawyers). Such statutes often come into play when directors have been charged with breaching their procedural duty of care by making an inadequately informed decision, but they can be applicable in other contexts as well. In effect, the statutes provide a defense to directors charged with breach of fiduciary duty when their allegedly uninformed or wrongful decisions were based on credible information provided by others with appropriate expertise. Professor Douglas Moll will examine these “reliance on experts” statutes and explore a number of questions associated with them.
Session 2: Fact or Fiction: Flawed Approaches to Evaluating Market Behavior in Securities Litigation
Private fraud actions brought under Section 10(b) of the Securities Exchange Act require courts to make a variety of determinations regarding market functioning and the economic effects of the alleged misconduct. Over the years, courts have developed a variety of doctrines to guide how these inquiries are to be conducted. For example, courts look to a series of specific, pre-defined factors to determine whether a market is “efficient” and thus responsive to new information. Courts also rely on a variety of doctrines to determine whether and for how long publicly-available information has exerted an influence on security prices. Courts’ judgments on these matters dictate whether cases will proceed to summary judgment and trial, whether classes will be certified and the scope of such classes, and the damages that investors are entitled to collect. Professor Ann M. Lipton will discuss how these doctrines operate in such an artificial manner that they no longer shed light on the underlying factual inquiry, namely, the actual effect of the alleged fraud on investors.
Session 3: Lawyering for Social Enterprise
Professor Joan Heminway will focus on salient components of professional responsibility operative in delivering advisory legal services to social enterprises. Social enterprises—businesses that exist to generate financial and social or environmental benefits—have received significant positive public attention in recent years. However, social enterprise and the related concepts of social entrepreneurship and impact investing are neither well defined nor well understood. As a result, entrepreneurs, investors, intermediaries, and agents, as well as their respective advisors, may be operating under different impressions or assumptions about what social enterprise is and have different ideas about how to best build and manage a sustainable social enterprise business. Professor Heminway will discuss how these legal uncertainties have the capacity to generate transaction costs around entity formation and management decision making and the pertinent professional responsibilities implicated in an attorney’s representation of such social enterprises.
Session 4: Beyond Bitcoin: Leveraging Blockchain for Corporate Governance, Corporate Social Responsibility, and Enterprise Risk Management
Although many people equate blockchain with bitcoin, cryptocurrency, and smart contracts, Professor Marcia Narine Weldon will discuss how the technology also has the potential to transform the way companies look at governance and enterprise risk management. Companies and stock exchanges are using blockchain for shareholder communications, managing supply chains, internal audit, and cybersecurity. Professor Weldon will focus on eliminating barriers to transparency in the human rights arena. Professor Weldon’s discussion will provide an overview of blockchain technology and how state and nonstate actors use the technology outside of the realm of cryptocurrency.
Session 5: Crafting State Corporate Law for Research and Review
Professor Benjamin Edwards will discuss how states can implement changes in state corporate law with an eye toward putting in place provisions and measures to make it easier for policymakers to retrospectively review changes to state law to discern whether legislation accomplished its stated goals. State legislatures often enact and amend their business corporation laws without considering how to review and evaluate their effectiveness and impact. This inattention means that state legislatures quickly lose sight of whether the changes actually generate the benefits desired at the time off passage. It also means that state legislatures may not observe stock price reactions or other market reactions to legislation. Our federal system allows states to serve as the laboratories of democracy. The controversy over fee-shifting bylaws and corporate charter provisions offers an opportunity for state legislatures to intelligently design changes in corporate law to achieve multiple state and regulatory objectives. Professor Edwards will discuss how well-crafted legislation would: (i) allow states to compete effectively in the market for corporate charters; and (ii) generate useful information for evaluating whether particular bylaws or charter provisions enhance shareholder wealth.
Session 6: An Overt Disclosure Requirement for Eliminating the Duty of Loyalty
When Delaware law allowed parties to eliminate the duty of loyalty for LLCs, more than a few people were appalled. Concerns about eliminating the duty of loyalty are not surprising given traditional business law fiduciary duty doctrine. However, as business agreements evolved, and became more sophisticated, freedom of contract has become more common, and attractive. How to reconcile this tradition with the emerging trend? Professor Joshua Fershée will discuss why we need to bring a partnership principle to LLCs to help. In partnerships, the default rule is that changes to the partnership agreement or acts outside the ordinary course of business require a unanimous vote. See UPA § 18(h) & RUPA § 401(j). As such, the duty of loyalty should have the same requirement, and perhaps that even the rule should be mandatory, not just default. The duty of loyalty norm is sufficiently ingrained that more active notice (and more explicit consent) is necessary, and eliminating the duty of loyalty is sufficiently unique that it warrants unique treatment if it is to be eliminated.
Session 7: Does Corporate Personhood Matter? A Review of We the Corporations
Professor Stefan Padfield will discuss a book written by UCLA Law Professor Adam Winkler, “We the Corporations: How American Businesses Won Their Civil Rights.” The highly-praised book “reveals the secret history of one of America’s most successful yet least-known ‘civil rights movements’ – the centuries-long struggle for equal rights for corporations.” However, the book is not without its controversial assertions, particularly when it comes to its characterizations of some of the key components of corporate personhood and corporate personality theory. This discussion will unpack some of these assertions, hopefully ensuring that advocates who rely on the book will be informed as to alternative approaches to key issues.
September 1, 2018 in Ann Lipton, Compliance, Conferences, Contracts, Corporate Governance, Corporate Personality, Corporations, Current Affairs, Employment Law, Human Rights, Intellectual Property, International Business, Joan Heminway, Joshua P. Fershee, Law School, Lawyering, LLCs, Marcia Narine Weldon, Real Property, Shareholders, Social Enterprise, Stefan J. Padfield, Teaching, Technology, Web/Tech | Permalink | Comments (0)
Sunday, August 12, 2018
We’re a month away from our second annual Business Law Professor Blog CLE, hosted at the University of Tennessee on Friday, September 14, 2018. We’ll discuss our latest research and receive comments from UT faculty and students. I’ve entitled my talk Beyond Bitcoin: Leveraging Blockchain for Corporate Governance, Corporate Social Responsibility, and Enterprise Risk Management, and will blog more about that after I finish the article. This is a really long post, but it’s chock full of helpful links for novices and experts alike and highlights some really interesting work from our colleagues at other law schools.
Two weeks ago, I posted some resources to help familiarize you with blockchain. Here’s a relatively simple definition from John Giordani at Forbes:
Blockchain is a public register in which transactions between two users belonging to the same network are stored in a secure, verifiable and permanent way. The data relating to the exchanges are saved inside cryptographic blocks, connected in a hierarchical manner to each other. This creates an endless chain of data blocks -- hence the name blockchain -- that allows you to trace and verify all the transactions you have ever made. The primary function of a blockchain is, therefore, to certify transactions between people. In the case of Bitcoin, the blockchain serves to verify the exchange of cryptocurrency between two users, but it is only one of the many possible uses of this technological structure. In other sectors, the blockchain can certify the exchange of shares and stocks, operate as if it were a notary and "validate" a contract or make the votes cast in online voting secure and impossible to alter. One of the greatest advantages of the blockchain is the high degree of security it guarantees. In fact, once a transaction is certified and saved within one of the chain blocks, it can no longer be modified or tampered with. Each block consists of a pointer that connects it to the previous block, a timestamp that certifies the time at which the event actually took place and the transaction data.
These three elements ensure that each element of the blockchain is unique and immutable -- any request to modify the timestamp or the content of the block would change all subsequent blocks. This is because the pointer is created based on the data in the previous block, triggering a real chain reaction. In order for any alterations to happen, it would be necessary for the 50%-plus-one of the network to approve the change: a possible but hardly feasible operation since the blockchain is distributed worldwide between millions of users.
In case that wasn’t clear enough, here are links to a few of my favorite videos for novices. These will help you understand the rest of this blog post.
- Blockchain Expert Explains One Concept in 5 Levels of Difficulty
- 19 Industries That Blockchain Will Disrupt
- How Blockchain is Changing Money and Business
To help prepare for my own talk in Tennessee, I attended a fascinating discussion at SEALS on Thursday moderated by Dean Jon Garon of Nova Southeastern University Shepard Broad College of Law called Blockchain Technology and the Law.
For those of you who don’t know how blockchain technology can relate to your practice or teaching, I thought I would provide a few questions raised by some of the speakers. I’ve inserted some (oversimplified)links for definitions. The speakers did not include these links, so if I have used one that you believe is incomplete or inaccurate, do not attribute it to them.
Del started the session by talking about the legal issues in blockchain consensus models. He described consensus models as the backbones for users because they: 1) allow users to interact with each other in a trustless manner; 2) ensure the integrity of the ledger in both normal and adversarial situations; and 3) create a “novel variety of networks with extraordinary potential” if implemented correctly. He discussed both permissioned (e.g. Ripple) and permissionless (Bitcoin) systems and how they differ. He then explained Proof of Work blockchains supported by miners (who solve problems to add blocks to the blockchain) and masternodes (who provide the backbone support to the blockchain). He pointed out how blockchains can reduce agency costs and problems of asymmetrical information and then focused on their utility in financial markets, securities regulation, and corporate governance. Del compared the issues related to off-chain governance, where decisionmaking first takes place on a social level and is then actively encoded into the protocol by the developers (used by Bitcoin and Ethereum) to on-chain governance, where developers broadcast their improvement protocols on-chain and then, once approved, those improvements are implemented into the code. He closed by listing a number of “big unanswered issues” related to regulatory guidance, liability for the performance of the technology and choice of consensus, global issues, and GDPR and other data privacy issues.
Catherine wants to help judges think about smart contracts. She asked, among other things, how judges should address remedies, what counts as substantial performance, and how smart contract audits would work. She questioned whether judges should use a consumer protection approach or instead follow a draconian approach by embracing automation and enforcing smart contracts as drafted to discourage their adoption by those who are not sophisticated enough to understand how they work.
Tonya focuses on blockchain and intellectual property. Her talked raised the issues of non-fungible tokens generated through smart contracts and the internet of value. She used the example of cryptokitties, where players have the chance to collect and breed digital cats. She also raised the question of what kind of technology can avoid infringement. For more on how blockchain can disrupt copyright law, read her post here.
In case you didn’t have enough trust issues with blockchain and cryptocurrency, Rebecca’s presentation focused on the “halo of immutability” and asked a few central questions: 1) why should we trust the miners not to collude for a 51% attack 2) why should we trust wallets, which aren’t as secure as people think; and 3) why should we trust the consensus mechanism? In response, some members of the audience noted that blockchain appeals to a libertarian element because of the removal of the government from the conversation.
Professor Carla Reyes, Michigan State University College of Law- follow her on Twitter at Carla Reyes (@Prof_CarlaReyes);
Carla talked about crypto corporate governance and the potential fiduciary duties that come out of thinking of blockchains as public trusts or corporations. She explained that governance happens on and off of the blockchain mechanisms through social media outlets such as Redditt. She further noted that many of those who call themselves “passive economic participants” are actually involved in governance because they comment on improvement processes. She also noted the paradox that off chain governance doesn’t always work very well because participants don’t always agree, but when they do agree, it often leads to controversial results like hard forks. Her upcoming article will outline potential fiduciaries (miner and masternode operators for example), their duties, and when they apply. She also asked the provocative question of whether a hard fork is like a Revlon event.
As a former chief privacy officer, I have to confess a bias toward Charlotte’s presentation. She talked about blockchain in healthcare focusing on these questions: will gains in cybersecurity protection outweigh specific issues for privacy or other legal issues (data ownership); what are the practical implications of implementing a private blockchain (consortium, patient-initiated, regulatory-approved); can this apply to other needed uses, including medical device applications; how might this technology work over geographically diverse regulatory structures; and are there better applications for this technology (e.g. connected health devices)? She posited that blockchain could work in healthcare because it is decentralized, has increased security, improves access controls, is more impervious to unauthorized change, could support availability goals for ransomware attacks and other issues, is potentially interoperable, could be less expensive, and could be controlled by regulatory branch, consortium, and the patient. She closed by raising potential legal issues related to broad data sharing, unanswered questions about private implementations, privacy requirements relating to the obligation of data deletion and correction (GDPR in the EU, China’s cybersecurity law, etc); and questions of data ownership in a contract.
Eric closed by discussing the potential tax issue for hard forks. He explained that after a hard fork, a new coin is created, and asked whether that creates income because the owner had one entitlement and now has two pieces of ownership. He then asked whether hard forks are more like corporate reorganizations or spinoffs (which already have statutory taxation provisions) or rather analogous to a change of wealth. Finally, he asked whether we should think about these transactions like a contingent right to do something in the future and how that should be valued.
Stay tuned for more on these and other projects related to blockchain. I will be sure to post them when they are done. But, ignore blockchain at your peril. There’s a reason that IBM, Microsoft, and the State Department are spending money on this technology. If you come to UT on September 15th, I’ll explain how other companies, the UN, NASDAQ, and nation states are using blockchain beyond the cryptocurrency arena.
August 12, 2018 in Commercial Law, Compliance, Conferences, Contracts, Corporate Governance, Corporations, Current Affairs, Entrepreneurship, Human Rights, Law School, Lawyering, Legislation, Marcia Narine Weldon, Research/Scholarhip, Securities Regulation, Shareholders, Teaching, Technology, Writing | Permalink | Comments (0)