Friday, October 23, 2020

When Wall Street Talks, Does Washington Listen?

It’s hard to believe that the US will have an election in less than two weeks. Three years ago, a month after President Trump took office, I posted about CEOs commenting on his executive order barring people from certain countries from entering the United States. Some branded the executive order a “Muslim travel ban” and others questioned whether the CEOs should have entered into the political fray at all. Some opined that speaking out on these issues detracted from the CEOs’ mission of maximizing shareholder value. But I saw it as a business decision - - these CEOs, particularly in the tech sector, depended on the skills and expertise of foreign workers.

That was 2017. In 2018, Larry Fink, CEO of BlackRock, told the largest companies in the world that “to prosper over time, every company must not only deliver financial performance, but also show how it makes a positive contribution to society…Without a sense of purpose, no company, either public or private, can achieve its full potential. It will ultimately lose the license to operate from key stakeholders.” Fink’s annual letter to CEOs carries weight; BlackRock had almost six trillion dollars in assets under management in 2018, and when Fink talks, Wall Street listens. Perhaps emboldened by the BlackRock letter, one year later, 181 CEOs signed on to the Business Roundtable's Statement on the Purpose of a Corporation, which “modernized” its position on the shareholder maximization norm. The BRT CEOs promised to invest in employees, deal ethically and fairly with suppliers, and embrace sustainable business practices. Many observers, however, believed that the Business Roundtable statement was all talk and no action. To see how some of the signatories have done on their commitments as of last week, see here.

Then came 2020, a year like no other. The United States is now facing a global pandemic, mass unemployment, a climate change crisis, social unrest, and of course an election. During the Summer of 2020, several CEOs made public statements on behalf of themselves and their companies about racial unrest, with some going as far as to proclaim, “Black Lives Matter.” I questioned these motives in a post I called “"Wokewashing and the Board." While I admired companies that made a sincere public statement about racial justice and had a real commitment to look inward, I was skeptical about firms that merely made statements for publicity points. I wondered, in that post, about companies rushing to implement diversity training, retain consultants, and appoint board members to either curry favor with the public or avoid the shareholder derivative suits facing Oracle, Facebook, and Qualcomm. How well had they thought it out? Meanwhile, I noted that my colleagues who have conducted diversity training and employee engagement projects for years were so busy that they were farming out work to each other. Now the phones aren’t ringing as much, and when they are ringing, it’s often to cancel or postpone training.

Why? Last month, President Trump issued the Executive Order on Combatting Race and Sex Stereotyping. As the President explained:

today . . .  many people are pushing a different vision of America that is grounded in hierarchies based on collective social and political identities rather than in the inherent and equal dignity of every person as an individual. This ideology is rooted in the pernicious and false belief that America is an irredeemably racist and sexist country; that some people, simply on account of their race or sex, are oppressors; and that racial and sexual identities are more important than our common status as human beings and Americans ... Therefore, it shall be the policy of the United States not to promote race or sex stereotyping or scapegoating in the Federal workforce or in the Uniformed Services, and not to allow grant funds to be used for these purposes. In addition, Federal contractors will not be permitted to inculcate such views in their employees.

The Order then provides a hotline process for employees to raise concerns about their training. Whether you agree with the statements in the Order or not -- and I recommend that you read it -- it had a huge and immediate effect. The federal government is the largest procurer of goods and services in the world. This Order applies to federal contractors and subcontractors. Some of those same companies have mandates from state law to actually conduct training on sexual harassment. Often companies need to show proof of policies and training to mount an affirmative defense to discrimination claims. More important, while reasonable people can disagree about the types and content of diversity training, there is no doubt that employees often need training on how to deal with each other respectfully in the workplace. (For a thought-provoking take on a board’s duty to monitor diversity  training by co-blogger Stefan Padfield, click here.)

Perhaps because of the federal government’s buying power, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce felt compelled to act. On October 15th, the Chamber and 150 organizations wrote a letter to the President stating:

As currently written, we believe the E.O. will create confusion and uncertainty, lead to non-meritorious investigations, and hinder the ability of employers to implement critical programs to promote diversity and combat discrimination in the workplace. We urge you to withdraw the Executive Order and work with the business and nonprofit communities on an approach that would support appropriate workplace training programs ...  there is a great deal of subjectivity around how certain content would be perceived by different individuals. For example, the definition of “divisive concepts” creates many gray areas and will likely result in multiple different interpretations. Because the ultimate threat of debarment is a possible consequence, we have heard from some companies that they are suspending all D&I training.  This outcome is contrary to the E.O.’s stated purpose, but an understandable reaction given companies’ lack of clear guidance. Thus, the E.O. is already having a broadly chilling effect on legitimate and valuable D&I training companies use to foster inclusive workplaces, help with talent recruitment, and remain competitive in a country with a wide range of different cultures. … Such an approach effectively creates two sets of rules, one for those companies that do business with the government and another for those that do not. Federal contractors should be left to manage their workforces and workplaces with a minimum amount of interference so long as they are compliant with the law.

It’s rare for the Chamber to make such a statement, but it was bold and appropriate. Many of the Business Roundtable signatories are also members of the U.S. Chamber, and on the same day, the BRT issued its own statement committing to programs to advance racial equity and justice. BRT Chair and WalMart CEO Doug McMillon observed,  “the racial inequities that exist for many Black Americans and people of color are real and deeply rooted . .  These longstanding systemic challenges have too often prevented access to the benefits of economic growth and mobility for too many, and a broad and diverse group of Americans is demanding change. It is our employees, customers and communities who are calling for change, and we are listening – and most importantly – we are taking action.” Now that's a stakeholder maximization statement if I ever heard one.

Those who thought that some CEOs went too far in protesting the Muslim ban, may be even more shocked by the BRT’s statements about the police. The BRT also has a subcommittee to address racial justice issues and noted that “For Business Roundtable CEOs, this agenda is an important step in addressing barriers to equity and justice . . . This summer we took on the urgent need for policing reform. We called on Congress to adopt higher federal standards for policing, to track whether police departments and officers have histories of misconduct, and to adopt measures to hold abusive officers accountable. Now, with announcement of this broader agenda, CEOs are supporting policies and undertaking initiatives to address several other systems that contribute to large and growing disparities.”

Now that stakeholders have seen so many of these social statements, they have asked for more. Last week, a group of executives from the Leadership Now Project issued a statement supporting free and fair elections. However, as Bennett Freeman, former Calvert executive and Clinton cabinet member noted, no Fortune 500 CEOs have signed on to that statement. Yesterday, the Interfaith Center on Corporate Responsibility (ICCR) sent a letter to 200 CEOs, including some members of the BRT asking for their support. ICCR asked that they endorse:

  1. Active support for free and fair elections
  2. A call for a thorough and complete counting of all ballots
  3. A call for all states to ensure a fair election
  4. A condemnation of any tactics that could be construed as voter intimidation
  5. Assurance that, should the incumbent Administration lose the election, there will be a peaceful transfer of power
  6. Ensure that lobbying activities and political donations support the above

Is this a pipe dream? Do CEOs really want to stick their necks out in a tacit criticism of the current president’s equivocal statements about his post-election plans? Now that JPMorgan Chase CEO Jamie Dimon has spoken about the importance of respect for the democratic process and the peaceful transfer of power, perhaps more executives will make public statements. But should they? On the one hand, the markets need stability. Perhaps Dimon was actually really focused on shareholder maximization after all. Nonetheless, Freeman and others have called for a Twitter campaign to urge more CEOs to speak out. My next post will be up on the Friday after the election and I’ll report back about the success of the hashtag activism effort. In the meantime, stay tuned and stay safe.

October 23, 2020 in Contracts, Corporate Governance, Corporate Personality, Corporations, CSR, Current Affairs, Employment Law, Ethics, Financial Markets, Human Rights, Legislation, Management, Marcia Narine Weldon, Nonprofits, Stefan J. Padfield | Permalink | Comments (0)

Friday, October 2, 2020

Sex, Lies, and M&A- Part II

No. You didn't miss Part 1. I wrote about Weinstein clauses last July. Last Wednesday, I spoke with a reporter who had read that blog post.  Acquirors use these #MeToo/Weinstein clauses to require target companies to represent that there have been no allegations of, or settlement related to, sexual misconduct or harassment. I look at these clauses through the lens of a management-side employment lawyer/compliance officer/transactional drafting professor. It’s almost impossible to write these in a way that’s precise enough to provide the assurances that the acquiror wants or needs.

Specifically, the reporter wanted to know whether it was unusual that Chevron had added this clause into its merger documents with Noble Energy. As per the Prospectus:

Since January 1, 2018, to the knowledge of the Company, (i), no allegations of sexual harassment or other sexual misconduct have been made against any employee of the Company with the title of director, vice president or above through the Company’s anonymous employee hotline or any formal human resources communication channels at the Company, and (ii) there are no actions, suits, investigations or proceedings pending or, to the Company’s knowledge, threatened related to any allegations of sexual harassment or other sexual misconduct by any employee of the Company with the title of director, vice president or above. Since January 1, 2018, to the knowledge of the Company, neither the Company nor any of its Subsidiaries have entered into any settlement agreements related to allegations of sexual harassment or other sexual misconduct by any employee of the Company with the title of director, vice president or above.

Whether I agree with these clauses or not, I can see why Chevron wanted one. After all, Noble’s former general counsel left the company in 2017 to “pursue personal interests” after accusations that he had secretly recorded a female employee with a video camera under his desk. To its credit, Noble took swift action, although it did give the GC nine million dollars, which to be fair included $8.3 million in deferred compensation. Noble did not, however, exercise its clawback rights. Under these circumstances, if I represented Chevron, I would have asked for the same thing. Noble’s anonymous complaint mechanisms went to the GC’s office. I’m sure Chevron did its own social due diligence but you can never be too careful. Why would Noble agree? I have to assume that the company’s outside lawyers interviewed as many Noble employees as possible and provided a clean bill of health. Compared with others I’ve seen, the Chevron Weinstein clause is better than most.

Interestingly, although several hundred executives have left their positions due to allegations of sexual misconduct or harassment since 2017, only a small minority of companies use these Weinstein clauses. Here are a few:

  1. Merger between Cotiviti and Verscend Technologies:

Except in each case, as has not had and would not reasonably be expected to have, individually or in the aggregate, a Company Material Adverse Effect, to the Knowledge of the Company, (i) no allegations of sexual harassment have been made against (A) any officer or director of the Acquired Companies or (B) any employee of the Acquired Companies who, directly or indirectly, supervises at least eight (8) other employees of the Acquired Companies, and (ii) the Acquired Companies have not entered into any settlement agreement related to allegations of sexual harassment or sexual misconduct by an employee, contractor, director, officer or other Representative.

  1. Merger between Genuine Parts Company, Rhino SpinCo, Inc., Essendant Inc., and Elephant Merger Sub Corp.:

To the knowledge of GPC, in the last five (5) years, no allegations of sexual harassment have been made against any current SpinCo Business Employee who is (i) an executive officer or (ii) at the level of Senior Vice President or above.

  1. AGREEMENT AND PLAN OF MERGER BY AND AMONG WORDSTREAM, INC., GANNETT CO., INC., ORCA MERGER SUB, INC. AND SHAREHOLDER REPRESENTATIVE SERVICES LLC:

(i) The Company is not party to a settlement agreement with a current or former officer, employee or independent contractor of the Company or its Affiliates that involves allegations relating to sexual harassment or misconduct. To the Knowledge of the Company, in the last eight (8) years, no allegations of sexual harassment or misconduct have been made against any current or former officer or employee of the Company or its Affiliates.

  1. AGREEMENT AND PLAN OF MERGER By and Among RLJ ENTERTAINMENT, INC., AMC NETWORKS INC., DIGITAL ENTERTAINMENT HOLDINGS LLC and RIVER MERGER SUB INC.:

(c) To the Company’s Knowledge, in the last ten (10) years, (i) no allegations of sexual harassment have been made against any officer of the Company or any of its Subsidiaries, and (ii) the Company and its Subsidiaries have not entered into any settlement agreements related to allegations of sexual harassment or misconduct by an officer of the Company or any of its Subsidiaries.

Here are just a few questions:

  1. What's the definition of "sexual misconduct"? Are the companies using a legal definition? Under which law? None of the samples define the term.
  2. What happens of the company handbook or policies do not define "sexual misconduct"?
  3. How do the parties define "sexual harassment"? Are they using Title VII, state law, case law, their diversity training decks,  the employee handbook? None of the samples define the term.
  4. What about the definition of "allegation"? Is this an allegation through formal or informal channels (as employment lawyers would consider it)? Chevron gets high marks here.
  5. Have the target companies used the best knowledge qualifiers to protect themselves?
  6. How will the target company investigate whether the executives and officers have had “allegations”? Should the company lawyers do an investigation of every executive covered by the representation to make sure the company has the requisite “knowledge”? If the deal documents don't define "knowledge," should we impute knowledge?
  7. What about those in the succession plan who may not be in the officer or executives ranks?

Will we see more of these in the future? I don’t know. But I sure hope that General Motors has some protection in place after the most recent allegations against Nikola’s founder and former chairman, who faces sexual assault allegations from his teenage years. Despite allegations of fraud and sexual misconduct, GM appears to be moving forward with the deal, taking advantage of Nikola’s decreased valuation after the revelation of the scandals.

I’ll watch out for these #MeToo clauses in the future. In the meantime, I’ll ask my transactional drafting students to take a crack at reworking them. If you assign these clauses to your students, feel free to send me the work product at mweldon@law.miami.edu.

Take care and stay safe.

October 2, 2020 in Compliance, Contracts, Corporate Governance, Corporate Personality, Corporations, Current Affairs, Employment Law, Ethics, Lawyering, M&A, Management, Marcia Narine Weldon, Securities Regulation | Permalink | Comments (1)

Monday, August 10, 2020

Insurance, Education, and Civil Rights

I recently received word from one of our former guest bloggers, Marcos Mendoza (whom I introduced here and who posted here, here, here, here, and here), that his most recent insurance article, The Limits of Insurance as Governance: Professional Liability Coverage for Civil Rights Claims Against Public School Districts, has been published in the Quinnipiac Law Review.  It is available on SSRN here.  The abstract follows.

Insurance intersects with people throughout their lives, sometimes with elements that are unobserved or misunderstood. That is often the case with “insurance as governance,” a form of private contractual regulation. This theory assumes that insurers, to minimize their financial losses, attempt to shape policyholder conduct by employing private regulatory measures, primarily through underwriting and contractual loss prevention methods. Insurance as governance is about risk reduction.

This article addresses a question regarding civil rights—do insurers influence the civil rights policies of public school districts? A broad legal arc encompasses civil rights litigation against schools, from freedom of speech complaints to sex-based claims involving students. School boards purchase professional liability insurance to defend their operational policies and actions. Previous research has not examined whether insurers attempt to shape school officials’ conduct to reduce these claims. This article finds that insurer influence is surprisingly minimal despite the financial and potential societal benefits.

Landmark scholarship (Rappaport, Harvard Law Review, 2017) established that insurers could positively influence police officer conduct, resulting in fewer civil rights claims against police entities. But this school environment research determines that insurers of public schools do not employ assertive loss prevention methods to limit civil rights claims. This lack of private regulation is because school boards want and exercise significant local control authority, and the administrators of interlocal risk pools—the leading type of insurer discussed within—have political concerns about membership stability, leading to regulatory hesitation.

This empirical study makes two main contributions. First, it involves a discussion of why insurer private regulation does not linearly increase when school district civil rights exposures rise. This contribution includes a review of the school districts’ mutual ownership of the predominant school insurer, the interlocal pool; an examination of the strong local control desires of school boards; and an analysis of the attendant political concerns of the interlocal pool administrators. Second, it reviews the policy adoption process of school boards, notes how school officials interact with and tend to resist insurers, and documents how this sociolegal setting creates insurers’ reluctance to attempt conduct-shaping with school districts regarding civil rights. This article will further private regulation scholarship regarding governmental entities and allow scholars to reassess the reach of insurance as governance.

Both this article and an earlier piece written by Marcos are cited in the new edition of Kenneth Abraham and Dan Schwarcz's Insurance Law and Regulation casebook.

I took a quick peak into the article, even though insurance is not my legal "thing."  (I come from a line of insurance brokers and underwriters, but I went a different way . . . .)  The article is well written and covers a lot of interesting ground.  It is a tale of private ordering and regulation--or, rather, the absence thereof.  On a macro level, the piece asks and answers the question: why, if insurance contracts incentivize policyholder behavior in some circumstances or with some insureds, do they not incentivize behavior in or with others?  Its focus is, as the article title suggests, on public school districts as policyholders and civil rights claims as insured risks. 

Although The University of Tennessee recently faced significant exposure for alleged Title IX violations (settled four years ago), I admit I hadn't thought much about the exposure of school districts to civil rights litigation.  Of course, that exposure includes more than Title IX litigation.  As the article notes, Section 1983 claims, Title VI claims, Title VII claims, and disability claims under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act and Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 also represent potential liability threats.  Overall, the level of risk is reasonably high.

Yet, perhaps not high enough . . . .  In the introductory portion of the article, Marcos contrasts the regulation of public police through insurance policies (evidenced in prior literature) with the lack or failure of similar regulation of public school districts.  In the conclusion, he notes, among other things, that "it seems that assertive regulation happens with public actors only when the risk exposures become extreme, and not before."  He also observes that insurer, as well as insured, behaviors contribute to the creation of regulatory power through insurance arrangements.  All in all, the article is an instructive read with analogies to many other areas in which common types of contracts are entered into by repeat players in a commercial or other context.

August 10, 2020 in Contracts, Insurance, Joan Heminway | Permalink | Comments (0)

Monday, August 3, 2020

Drake Hiring Announcements - Technology and Law

Drake University invites applications from entry level and lateral candidates for a tenure-track Assistant/Associate Professor of Law position beginning in the 2021-22 academic year.  We are interested in candidates with demonstrated interest or experience in Technology Law. Applicants must hold a J.D. degree (or the equivalent) and should have a record of academic excellence, substantial academic or practice experience, and a passion for teaching. Appointment rank will be determined commensurate with the candidate’s qualifications and experience.

In addition to service and scholarship, this position involves teaching courses such as Legal/Ethical Issues in Technology, Technology Law, Privacy Law, and related areas in both the Law School and the College of Arts & Sciences as well as advising law and undergraduate students and serving as a University resource on technology legal issues.

Drake University sustains a vibrant intellectual culture, and Des Moines has been recognized as the Best Place to Live (US News), the Best Place for Young Professionals (Forbes), and as the #1 Best U.S. City for Business (MarketWatch).

Drake University is an equal opportunity employer and actively seeks applicants who reflect the nation’s diversity.  No applicant shall be discriminated against on the basis of race, color, national origin, creed, religion, age, disability, sex, gender identity, sexual orientation, genetic information or veteran status. Diversity is one of Drake’s core values and applicants need to demonstrate an ability to work with individuals and groups of diverse backgrounds.

Confidential review of applications will begin immediately. Applications (including a letter of interest, a complete CV, teaching evaluations (if available), a diversity statement, and the names and addresses of at least three references) should be sent to Professor Ellen Yee, Chair, Faculty Appointments Committee, Drake University Law School, 2507 University Ave., Des Moines, IA 50311 or e-mail: ellen.yee@drake.edu.

+++++

Drake University Law School invites applications from entry level and lateral candidates for a tenure-track or tenured Assistant/Associate/Professor of Law position beginning in the 2021-22 academic year.  We are especially interested in candidates with demonstrated interest or experience in Contracts, Sales, Tax, Intellectual Property, and Family Law. Applicants must hold a J.D. degree (or the equivalent) and should have a record of academic excellence, substantial academic or practice experience, and a passion for teaching. Appointment rank will be determined commensurate with the candidate’s qualifications and experience.

Drake University Law School sustains a vibrant intellectual culture, and Des Moines has been recognized as the Best Place to Live (US News), the Best Place for Young Professionals (Forbes), and as the #1 Best U.S. City for Business (MarketWatch). The Law School features innovative and nationally recognized programs in agricultural law, constitutional law, legal research and writing, and practical training.

Drake University is an equal opportunity employer and actively seeks applicants who reflect the nation’s diversity.  No applicant shall be discriminated against on the basis of race, color, national origin, creed, religion, age, disability, sex, gender identity, sexual orientation, genetic information or veteran status. Diversity is one of Drake’s core values and applicants need to demonstrate an ability to work with individuals and groups of diverse socioeconomic, cultural, sexual orientation, disability, and/or ethnic backgrounds.

Confidential review of applications will begin immediately. Applications (including a letter of interest, a complete CV, teaching evaluations (if available), a diversity statement, and the names and addresses of at least three references) should be sent to Professor Ellen Yee, Chair, Faculty Appointments Committee, Drake University Law School, 2507 University Ave., Des Moines, IA 50311 or e-mail: ellen.yee@drake.edu.

August 3, 2020 in Commercial Law, Contracts, Ethics, Intellectual Property, Joan Heminway, Jobs, Technology | Permalink | Comments (0)

Sunday, April 26, 2020

More on Mass Arbitration Filings

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)              

April 26, 2020 in Colleen Baker, Contracts, Current Affairs | Permalink | Comments (1)

Sunday, April 5, 2020

Another Week in These Unusual Times Begins

Whenever Haskell Murray writes a running post, I always want to write one too.  I think he’s written two (here, here) since my last one (here), so I’ve decided it’s time for another!

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!]

April 5, 2020 in Colleen Baker, Contracts, Law School | Permalink | Comments (2)

Monday, February 17, 2020

Designing Legal Documents

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.

February 17, 2020 in Contracts, Joan Heminway, Teaching | Permalink | Comments (0)

Sunday, December 15, 2019

The Implied Covenant of Good Faith Means The Contract Makes Some Sense (If Only A Little)

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.

Oxbow Carbon & Minerals Holdings, Inc. v. Crestview-Oxbow Acquisition, LLC, 202 A.3d 482, 507 (Del. 2019) (footnotes omitted). For more on this case see the Delaware Corporate &Commercial Litigation Blog. 
 
Parties have a lot of latitude, but I think the covenant of good faith and fair dealing means that there must be a reasonable effort to honor the express terms of the agreement and there must have been some reason to enter the contract. That's it.  It's not a lot, but it still has teeth where someone takes all of the things.  

December 15, 2019 in Contracts, Delaware, Joshua P. Fershee, Litigation, LLCs | Permalink | Comments (0)

Sunday, December 1, 2019

Dissent Duly Noted: LLCs, Private Ordering, and Ample Notice

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.  

December 1, 2019 in Contracts, Corporations, Delaware, Joshua P. Fershee, LLCs | Permalink | Comments (1)

Saturday, September 7, 2019

Beyond Bitcoin: Leveraging Blockchain to Benefit Business and Society

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 mweldon@law.miami.edu. 

 

 

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

How (Not) To Teach an (Online) Transactional Drafting Course

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”:

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.
  4. 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.
  5. 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.
  6. 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.
  7. Make them teachThey 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.
  8. 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.
  9. 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.
  10. 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 mweldon@law.miami.edu. 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.

August 2, 2019 in Contracts, Law Firms, Law School, Lawyering, Marcia Narine Weldon, Negotiation, Teaching, Technology | Permalink | Comments (1)

Friday, July 26, 2019

Sex, Lies, and M&A

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

If Sole Ownership of an Entity Means Alter Ego, then Veil Piercing Will Be Inevitable

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.  

July 2, 2019 in Contracts, Corporations, Joshua P. Fershee, Litigation, LLCs | Permalink | Comments (0)

Friday, May 31, 2019

What Law Should Govern Enforcement or Invalidation of Standard Consumer Contract Terms?

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.  

I want to briefly pick up a small thread here from the portions of the proposed Restatement discussed at the meeting that relates to some of the work I have done on crowdfunding.  Crowdfunding platforms, like most web-based service businesses, use standard form "terms of use" that the service provider and customer end-user may desire to enforce under contract law.  Unsurprisingly, many of the terms of use for websites of this kind (and crowdfunding platform sites are no exception to the rule) are protective of the interests of the service provider.  These terms include, for example, mandatory arbitration provisions and waivers of jury trial and class action rights.

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 . . . .

 

May 31, 2019 in Contracts, Crowdfunding, Joan Heminway, Litigation | Permalink | Comments (0)

Tuesday, February 19, 2019

New Paper: Business Entities as Skeleton Keys

Christopher G. Bradley at University of Kentucky College of Law has posted his paper, Business Entities as Skeleton Keys.  The paper was also selected for the 2019 AALS Section on Agency, Partnership, LLCs and Unincorporated Associations program, Respecting the Entity: The LLC Grows Up.  

Chris notes the use of business entities to accomplish goals not attainable previously and the use of entities "to accomplish customized transactions and evade legal restrictions that would otherwise prevent them."  His observations and insights are good ones, and his paper is definitely worth the read.  I can't help but think that some of this is occurring more because of an increasing comfort with entities and a willingness to engage in creative transactions. We're seeing in beyond the use of entities, too, with the rise of derivatives over the last 20 or so years, not to mention cryptocurrencies.  Anyway,  it's a good paper and I recommend it. 

Here's the abstract:

This Article identifies the increasingly important phenomenon of what I term “skeleton key business entities” and discusses the ramifications of their rise. Modern business entities, such as LLCs, are increasingly created and deployed to accomplish customized transactions and evade legal restrictions that would otherwise prevent them. Rather than acting as traditional businesses, such entities are tools, or “skeleton keys,” used to open “locked doors” presented by existing bodies of law, including contract, property, bankruptcy, copyright, tax, national security, and even election law.

The Article centers on the example of the “Artist’s Contract,” a fascinating 1971 project, in which artists sought to retain rights in artworks they sold—to obtain a percentage of future appreciation in value, to exhibit the work upon request, and so on. As prior scholarship has noted, the transaction contemplated by the Artist’s Contract could not have been accomplished in regular contract form due to rules concerning privity, servitudes on chattels, and the first sale doctrine, among other things. But this no longer remains true. The emergence of modern business entity law provides the tools—i.e., skeleton key business entities—to “solve” all of these legal problems and allow for bespoke transactions such as those desired by the artists.

The rise of skeleton key business entities may unsettle numerous other bodies of law. They may bring efficiencies but may undermine important policies. After providing a range of examples, I suggest that scholars—including those outside the business and commercial law realm—should turn renewed attention to the remarkable capacities of these flexible, inexpensive, and surprisingly potent transactional tools. We should consider if it makes sense to force parties pursuing newly enabled forms of commerce to bear the costs of filtering transactions through business entities; or alternatively, which traditional doctrines should bind modern entities just as they bind parties outside of those forms.

February 19, 2019 in Contracts, Corporations, Joshua P. Fershee, LLCs, Partnership, Unincorporated Entities, Writing | Permalink | Comments (0)

Monday, February 4, 2019

ABA Request for Examples of Errors in Transactional Documents

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: daniel.kleinberger@mitchellhamline.edu. 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.

February 4, 2019 in Conferences, Contracts, Joan Heminway | Permalink | Comments (0)

Tuesday, December 18, 2018

There Once was an LLC with a Partnership Agreement Governing the Minority Shareholder's Interest

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.  

For what it's worth, it appears that the court analyzed the release correctly, so the resolution on the merits is likely proper. Still, blindly adopting the careless entity-related language of the litigants is frustrating, at a minimum.  But it does give me something else to write about. As long as these case keeping showing up, and they will keep showing up, Prof. Bainbridge need not wonder, "Is legal blogging dead?"  Not for me, and I don't think for those of us here at BLPB, anyway. 
 



 

December 18, 2018 in Contracts, Corporations, Joshua P. Fershee, Lawyering, Litigation, LLCs, Partnership | Permalink | Comments (0)

Friday, December 7, 2018

Delaware Supreme Court Affirms Triggering of MAE Clause

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! 

December 7, 2018 in Business Associations, Contracts, Delaware, Haskell Murray, Lawyering, M&A | Permalink | Comments (0)

Tuesday, November 27, 2018

Not the Default Rule, But LLC Members Definitely Can Be Employees

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.  

The case is Fisk Ventures, LLC v. Segal and the relevant facts excerpted from the case are as follows: 
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).  

So, for my purposes, that's a solid example of an LLC member who is also an employee, and it is from a case featured in more than one casebook, I might add.  

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.  

 

November 27, 2018 in Contracts, Delaware, Joshua P. Fershee, LLCs | Permalink | Comments (3)

Tuesday, October 30, 2018

Should You Ever Pierce the LLC Veil to Let a Member Recover? Probably Not.

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. 

October 30, 2018 in Contracts, Entrepreneurship, Joshua P. Fershee, Litigation, LLCs | Permalink | Comments (1)