Monday, March 18, 2019
OK. So, the title of this post is clickbait of sorts. I am not writing about Monty Python, sorry to say. But I am writing about something completely different for me--very outside my norm. In fact, this past year, I have been researching and writing a bit outside my norm . . . .
It all started with two blog posts here on the BLPB--here and here. My posts, focusing on Trump's deregulatory promises and early pronouncements, followed an earlier one written by Anne Tucker. Anne and I then organized an discussion group at the 2018 Association of American Law Schools Annual Meeting focusing on regulation in the Trump Era: "A New Era for Business Regulation?" I then presented some of my research on business deregulation at the National Business Law Scholars ("NBLS") conference in June 2018. A related Southeastern Association of Law Schools ("SEALS") discussion group followed later in the summer of 2018.
As I began to accumulate observations and information from these academic encounters, I came to vision a series of two papers that would enable me to engage in related research and make some observations. (I first shared my conception for the two-paper series in my NBLS presentation.) Thanks to an invitation from the UMKC Law Review to publish an administrative law reflection of my choice and an invitation from the Mercer Law Review to turn our SEALS discussion group into a published symposium volume, I was able to channel my curiosity about presidential deregulation and my research and writing energy into developing law review essays based on the two papers I had conceptualized.
From the start, my interest in presidential deregulation was driven by my interest in business and business law, and the essays reflect that interest and bias. In the first essay, I set out to explore the ways in which a U.S. president may fulfill deregulatory campaign promises and objectives. As someone who [ahem] underachieved her potential (shall we say) in Constitutional Law in law school, I was challenged in this task from the get-go. But I persevered and learned a lot from the Constitution itself and the work of administrative law scholars. In the second essay, I aimed to make observations about what successful presidential efforts at deregulation look like by reviewing the perceived successes of the Trump administration's deregulatory initiatives to date. This inquiry resulted in some interesting--even if somewhat predictable--findings.
The first essay, Designing Deregulation: The POTUS's Place in the Process, was just released. You can find it here. The last two paragraphs of the abstract follows.
This essay interrogates the role of the president in deregulation at the federal level. The interrogation is designed to serve two principle goals. First, the essay sets out to identify and explain the president’s role in the deregulatory process from a legal and practical perspective. Second, with the knowledge gained in better understanding the nature of the president’s optimal role in deregulating, the essay offers a perspective and practical advice for use by a president in constructing and implementing a deregulatory agenda.
Ultimately, the essay suggests that the president assume the roles of change leader and fiduciary in meeting deregulatory promises and expectations. The role of change leader focuses the president on processes geared to foster lasting change; the role of fiduciary focuses the president on trustworthy conduct in a relationship with the public that allows for discretion yet demands accountability. The two roles are not mutually exclusive. They have the capacity to work together as complements.
Both this essay and the forthcoming one are limited-scope works. My hope is that by having invested time in attempting to understand the current deregulatory environment, my ongoing work in securities regulation and other federal regulatory environments will be enriched. Regardless, I have become a more educated consumer of presidential power and authority in the process of my research and writing. Perhaps my work in this area also will offer some of you a bit of new information or a novel idea that helps you in your work--or at least in social conversation--as deregulatory efforts progress.
Friday, March 15, 2019
Hundreds of men have resigned or been terminated after allegations of sexual misconduct or assault. Just last week, celebrity chef/former TV star Mario Batali and the founder of British retailer Ted Baker were forced to sell their interests or step down from their own companies. Plaintiffs lawyers have now found a new cause of action. Although there a hurdles to success, shareholders file derivative suits when these kinds of allegations become public claiming breach of fiduciary duty, unjust enrichment, or corporate waste among other things. Examples of alleged corporate governance missteps in the filings include: failure to establish and implement appropriate controls to prevent the misconduct; failure to appropriately monitor the business; allowing known or suspected wrongdoing to persist; settling lawsuits but not changing the corporate culture or terminating wrongdoers; and paying large severance packages to the accused. Google, for example, announced earlier this year that it had terminated 48 people with no severance for sexual misconduct, but until it became public, the company did not disclose a $90 million payment to a former executive, who had allegedly coerced sex from an employee. Earlier this week, Google acknowledged another $35 million payment to a search executive who had been accused of sexual assault. This second payment was revealed after lawyers filed a shareholder derivative suit in January. CBS, on the other hand, denied a $120 million severance package to its former head, Les Moonvies, who has demanded arbitration.
So what happens when a company knows that a prominent executive has engaged in misconduct? How does a company prevent the conduct and then react to it? Board members and rank and file employees are undergoing more training even as people talk of a #MeToo backlash. But is that enough? Should companies now discuss potential or alleged sexual harassment by executives as a material risk factor in SEC filings? One panelist speaking at the 37th Annual Federal Securities Institute last month suggested that board counsel needed to consider this as an option.
#MeToo has also affected M&A deals with over a dozen companies now inserting a "Weinstein clause" representing, for example that “To the knowledge of the company, no allegations of sexual harassment have been made against any current or former executive officer of the company or any of its subsidiaries” Other "#MeToo reps" require a target company to confirm that it “has not entered into any settlement agreements” with perpetrators of sexual misconduct. Clawbacks are also increasingly common both in M & A deals and executive compensation agreements. Some companies have even asked newly-hired executives to represent that they have not been accused of or engaged in sexual misconduct.
I expect these #MeToo reps, clawbacks, and other disclosures to become more mainstream for a few reasons. First, there's a steady stream of news keeping these issues in the headlines, and many states have banned or are considering banning nondisclosure agreements in sexual harassment cases. Second, women leaders may now play a larger role in changing corporate culture. California requires that publicly held corporations whose “principal executive office” is located in California include at least one female board member by 2019 and even more depending on the size of the board. See here for some perspective on whether more female board members would lead to fewer sexual harassment scandals. Third, proxy advisory firms sounded the alarm on #MeToo in early 2018 and both ISS and Glass Lewis have issued statements about what they plan to recommend when there are no women on boards. Finally, BlackRock, the world's largest asset manager has made it clear that it expects to see women on boards. Some people do not agree that these guidelines/laws will work or are even necessary. Indeed, it will take a few years for empirical evidence to reveal whether having more women on boards and in the C suite will make a meaningful difference.
Personally, I believe it will take a combination of new leadership, successful shareholder derivative suits, and a continuation of the social due diligence in the hiring and M & A context. Sexual misconduct is wrong but it's also expensive. Companies are spending hundreds of thousands of dollars and sometimes more to investigate claims and prepare reports that they know will likely be made public at some time. Conduct won't change unless there are real financial and social penalties for wrongdoers.
Saturday, March 9, 2019
Yesterday was International Women's Day and I was supposed to post but couldn't think of what to write. I simply had too many choices based on this week's news. It's no coincidence that three months before the World Cup and on International Women's Day, the U.S. Women's Soccer Team sued U.S. Soccer for gender discrimination based on pay and working conditions, including medical treatment, travel arrangements, and coaching. On the one hand, some argue that the women should not receive the same amount as their male counterparts because they do not draw the same crowds or generate the same revenue. The plaintiffs argue that they cannot draw the same crowds in part because they do not get the same marketing and other financial support. In their defense, the U.S. women have won the World Cup three times and have won gold four times at the Olympics. The men's team has never won either tournament and didn't even qualify for the 2018 World Cup. I was in Brazil for the 2014 World Cup and when the men advanced, people were genuinely shocked. No one expected it and I was able to get a ticket to that match 15 minutes before start time for pennies on the dollar. Yet the men earn more.
If U.S. Soccer followed a pay for performance model, the women would and should clearly earn more. But, it's more complicated than that. As the NY Times explained, "each team has its own collective bargaining agreement with U.S. Soccer, and among the major differences are pay structure: the men receive higher bonuses when they play for the United States, but are paid only when they make the team, while the women receive guaranteed salaries supplemented by smaller match bonuses." Even so, the union for the U.S. Men's team supports the lawsuit, stating "we are committed to the concept of a revenue-sharing model to address the US Soccer Federation's "market realities" and find a way towards fair compensation. An equal division of revenue attributable to the MNT and WNT programs is our primary pursuit as we engage with the US Soccer Federation in collective bargaining. Our collective bargaining agreement expired at the end of 2018 and we have already raised an equal division of attributable revenue. We wait on US Soccer to respond to both players associations with a way to move forward with fair and equal compensation for all US soccer players." I will follow the lawsuit filed by Winston & Strawn and report back.
The other stories I considered writing about concerned the ouster Chef Mario Batali and resignation of the founder of UK retailer Ted Baker over sexual harassment allegations. I will save that for next week when I will discuss whether companies should consider listing sexual harassment/misconduct as a material risk factor in SEC filings.
Monday, February 25, 2019
A bunch of us sensed that it was coming. I raised the question in an October 8, 2018 post here. Now, it has actually happened.
Tesla Chief Executive Officer Elon Musk has finally caught the negative attention of the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) with yet another of his reckless tweets. The WaPo reported earlier tonight that "[t]he Securities and Exchange Commission . . . asked a federal judge to hold Tesla CEO Elon Musk in contempt for violating the terms of a recent settlement agreement . . . ." That settlement agreement, as readers will recall, relates to SEC allegations that Musk lied to investors when he posted on Twitter that he had secured the funding needed to take Tesla private. The settlement agreement provides for the review and pre-approval of Musk's market-moving public statements.
Ann Lipton and I, as BLPB's resident fraud mongers, have been following the Musk affaire de Twitter for a number of months now. (See, e.g., here, here, and here.) Based on our prior posts, it seems clear the world was destined for this moment--a moment in which the SEC not only catches Musk in a tweeted misstatement but also can prove that the tweet was not pre-approved, as required under the terms of the settlement agreement. The WaPo article notes evidence that breaches of the agreement may be the rule rather than the exception. (Why does that not surprise me?)
Let's see where this goes next . . . .
Wednesday, February 13, 2019
I have been told there may be some flexibility on the March 1 deadline.
The UMKC Law Review is pleased to announce a call for submissions relating to the law surrounding distributed ledger ("blockchain") technology. Selected papers will be published in the Special Topics Symposium, Summer 2019 edition of the UMKC Law Review. This symposium invites proposals for papers that explore the legal and regulatory issues involved in blockchain technology. Today, blockchain technology is used to build tools and infrastructure that help lawyers draft contracts, record commercial transactions, and verify legal documents. In general, investments in blockchain technology has surged over the past year, inviting both legitimate businesses and modern-day scammers. To date, regulatory agencies have yet to determine a consistent approach to the technology that protects the public while not stifling innovation. Issue 1 of UMKC Law Review’s 88th Volume will explore these and related topics with the goal of advancing awareness of blockchain technology and cryptoassets. Articles and essays of all lengths and papers by single authors or multiple authors are invited. Preference will be given to works between 5,000 and 25,000 words. To be accepted for publication in UMKC Law Review, articles must not have been previously published. Papers are due March 1, 2019.
Authors will have the opportunity to immediately publish submitted drafts to UMKC Law Review’s Special Topics Symposium webpage during the editing process. Proposals for papers should be submitted to the attention of
Ashley Crisafulli (email@example.com); and
Prof. Del Wright (firstname.lastname@example.org).
Proposals should include the following information:
Proposed title of paper
Anticipated length as either an article or essay
Abstract or brief description of the topic
Questions may be addressed to Ashley Crisafulli (email@example.com)
Tuesday, January 15, 2019
I am wading back into a jurisdiction case because when it to LLCs (limited liability companies), I need to. A new case from the United States Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit showed up on Westlaw. Here's how the analysis section begins:
Jurisdiction in this case is found under the diversity statute 28 U.S.C. § 1332. John Kendle is a citizen of Ohio; defendant WHIG Enterprises, LLC is a Florida corporation with its principal place of business in Mississippi; defendant Rx Pro Mississippi is a Mississippi corporation with its principal place of business in Mississippi; defendant Mitchell Chad Barrett is a citizen of Mississippi; defendant Jason Rutland is a citizen of Mississippi. R. 114 (Second Am. Compl. at ¶¶ 3, 5) (Page ID #981–82). Kendle is seeking damages in excess of $75,000. Id. at ¶¶ 50, 54, 58, 64, 71 (Page ID #992–95). The district court issued an order under Rule 54(b) of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure that granted final judgment in favor of Mitchell Chad Barrett, and so appellate jurisdiction is proper. R. 170 (Rule 54(b) Order) (Page ID #3021).
Kendle v. Whig Enterprises, LLC, No. 18-3574, 2019 WL 148420, at *3 (6th Cir. Jan. 9, 2019).
No. No. No. An LLC is not a corporation, for starters. And for purposes of diversity jurisdiction, "a limited liability company is a citizen of any state of which a member of the company is a citizen." Rolling Greens MHP, L.P. v. Comcast SCH Holdings L.L.C., 374 F.3d 1020, 1022 (11th Cir. 2004). As such the where the LLC is formed doesn't matter and the LLC's principal place of business doesn't matter. All that matters is the citizenship of each LLC member.
In this case, I can tell from the opinion that Kendle and Rutland are "co-owners" of WHIG Enterprises. The opinion suggests there may be other owners (i.e., members). The opinion refers to the plaintiff suing "WHIG Enterprises, LLC, two of its co-owners, and another affiliated entity." Kendle v. Whig Enterprises, LLC, No. 18-3574, 2019 WL 148420, at *1. The opinion later refers to Rutland as "another WHIG co-owner." If we want to know whether diversity jurisdiction is proper, though, we'll need to know ALL of WHIG's members.
Now, it may well be that there is diversity among the parties, but we don't know, and neither, apparently, does the court. That may not be an issue in this case, but if people start modeling their bases for jurisdiction on the Kendle excerpt above, things could get ugly. The Eleventh Circuit, as noted above. A more recent case further reminds us to check diversity for all members in an LLC. Thermoset Corporation v. Building Materials Corp. of America et al, 2017 WL 816224 (11th Cir., March 2, 2017).
I figured that I should give a shout out to folks getting right, given all my criticism of those getting it wrong. Come, Sixth Circuit, let's get it together.
Friday, January 11, 2019
I wasn't one of those people who decided to become a lawyer after watching To Kill a Mockingbird, Witness for the Prosecution, and Twelve Angry Men, but they were some of my favorite movies. These movies and TV shows like Suits, How to Get Away with Murder, and Law & Order "teach" students and the general public that practicing law is sexy and/or confrontational. When I teach, I try to demystify and clear up some of the falsehoods, and that's easy with litigation-type courses. When I taught Business Associations, it was a bit tougher but we often used movies or TV shows to illustrate the right and wrong ways to do things. As an extra credit assignment, I asked students to write a critique of what the writers missed, misrepresented, or completely misunderstood.
This semester, I will be teaching a transactional drafting course where the students represent either the buyer or the seller of a small, privately owned business. I would like to recommend movies or TV shows that don't deal with multibillion dollar mergers, but I haven't been watching too much TV lately. I'm looking for suggestions along the lines of Silicon Valley (which past students have loved) or Billions. If you have any suggestions, please comment below or email me at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Saturday, January 5, 2019
It's the start of a new year and a new semester. As Joan wrote earlier this week, we need to step back and take stock of our mental health. I'm the happiest lawyer I know and have been since I graduated from law school in 1992, but many lawyers and students aren't so lucky. In fact, I probably spend 25-35% of my time on campus calming students down. Some have normal anxiety that fades as they gain more confidence. I often recommend that those students read Grit or at least listen to the Ted talk. Others tell me (without my asking) about addictions, clinical depression, and other information that I should not know about. I know enough to refer to them to help. Closer to home, my 22-year old son has lost several friends to suicide. Many of those friends went to the best high schools and colleges in the country and seemed to have bright futures. And as we know, the suicide rate for lawyers is climbing.
Thankfully, the American Bar Association has gathered a number of resources for law students here. Practicing lawyers can find valuable tools for lawyer well-being here and a podcast for lawyers in recovery here. Law students can access their own ABA wellness podcast here. To help keep my energy high, I listen to a lot of podcasts of all types. I’ve found that listening to wellness podcasts, meditating, and exercising instead of watching the news has had a dramatic impact on my health. I know for a fact that the wellness stuff works. Due to significant stressors as a caretaker, my blood pressure spiked to a clinically dangerous level last week. This week, with mindfulness exercises and other wellness activities, I was able to lower it to normal levels without my new medication having kicked in yet. This is a big deal for me because despite my professional happiness, I’ve been hospitalized twice in 14 months for medical conditions exacerbated by stress. Being calm and stress free is literally a matter of life and death for me. Some of the podcasts I listen to are probably too “woo woo” to post for this audience but if you’re interested, you can email me privately at email@example.com. I’ll keep your secret.
Mainstream lawyer/business wellness podcasts include:
The Happy Lawyer Project (“The Happy Lawyer Project is an inspirational podcast for young lawyers looking to find happiness in life with a law degree. Each episode provides you with the tips, advice, encouragement and inspiration you need to craft a life and career you love.")
The Resilient Lawyer (“Practical and actionable information you can use to be a better lawyer. The Resilient Lawyer podcast is inspired by those in the legal profession living with authenticity and courage. Each week, we share tools and strategies for finding more balance, joy, and satisfaction in your professional and personal life! You'll meet lawyers, entrepreneurs, mentors and teachers successfully bridging the gap between their personal and professional lives, connecting the dots between their mental, emotional, physical and spiritual selves.”)
Happy Lawyer, Happy Life ("A knowledge centre for lawyers who want to make the best of their life in and outside of the law.")
The Tim Ferris Show (“Each episode, I deconstruct world-class performers from eclectic areas (investing, sports, business, art, etc.) to extract the tactics, tools, and routines you can use. This includes favorite books, morning routines, exercise habits, time-management tricks, and much more.”)
The Mindful Lawyer (it's no longer running, but my colleague Scott Rogers pioneered the field and these are short tracks.)
Dina Cataldo Soul Roadmap (“So, you’re a lawyer who doesn’t have it all figured out? Design the life you deserve. Stop killing yourself to achieve success and redefine it instead.”)
You may need more than a podcast to get you through whatever you're going through right now. If you, a student, a colleague, or family member needs immediate help, please get it. I’ve cut and pasted the resources below from our law school’s web page for students.
Key National Referral Services
Chemical Dependency and Self-Help Sites
Addition Recovery Resources for Professionals, 540-815-4214
Alcoholics Anonymous (AA), 212-870-3400
American Medical Association, 800-621-8335
Center for Substance Abuse Treatment (CSAT), 240-276-1660
Cocaine Anonymous (CA), 310-559-5833
CODA Drug Abuse Hotlines, 1-877-446-9087
Crystal Meth Anonymous (CMA), 213-488-4455
Dual Recovery Anonymous (DRA), 913-991-2703
International Lawyers in A.A. (ILAA), 944-566-9040
Marijuana Anonymous (MA), 800-766-6779
Narcotics Anonymous (NA), 818-773-9999
National Clearinghouse for Alcohol and Drug Information(SAMHSA), 1-877-SAMHSA (726-4727)
National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA), 301-443-1124
Nicotine Anonymous (NA), 415-750-0328
Anorexia Nervosa & Associated (Eating) Disorders (ANAD), 630-577-1330
Overeaters Anonymous (OA), 505-891-2664
Adult Children of Alcoholics (ACOA), 562-595-7831
Nar-Anon Family Groups, 310-534-8188
Co-Dependents Anonymous (CODA), 888-444-2359
Co-Dependents of Sex Addicts (COSA), 763-537-6904
Mental Health Sites
Anxiety Disorders Association of America (ADAA), 240-485-1001
Journal of General Psychiatry (JAMA), 1-800-262-2350
Children and Adults with Attention Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder(CHADD), 1-800-233-4050
Depression and Bipolor Support Alliance (DBSA), 800-826-3632
Lawyers with Depression
National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI), 800-950-6264
National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH), 1-866-615-6464
National Mental Health Association (NMHA), 703-684-7722
Sexual Addiction and Compulsivity
I'm sure that I've missed a number of resources. I just finished attending a wellness tea brunch at a French patisserie with fresh baked goods and champagne so I'm incredibly relaxed (#selfcare). If you have more resources to add, please feel free to comment below. Let’s make this the best year yet for our students and for ourselves. If I can ever be an ear for anyone, I’m always available.
Friday, December 21, 2018
If you are looking for podcasts over the break, I recommend Professor Brian Frye's Ipse Dixit. I have only listened to a handful of the 75 episodes, but I learned something new in each one.
A big thanks to Brian for putting all of these podcasts on legal scholarship together. The podcasts cover a wide range of legal topics, mostly in an interview format with other professors.
Tuesday, December 11, 2018
Jack Welch, former GE CEO (1981 to 2001) was revered for his ability to maximize shareholder value. Yet in 2009, he explained that shareholder value was
“the dumbest idea in the world. Shareholder value is a result, not a strategy... your main constituencies are your employees, your customers and your products. Managers and investors should not set share price increases as their overarching goal… Short-term profits should be allied with an increase in the long-term value of a company.”
This runs contrary to how many people think about the role of the CEO and the board of directors. I think it's spot on, and it is a key reason the business judgment rule, and its role in preserving director primacy, is so critical.
Last week, a Wall Street Journal article about Dick's Sporting Goods made the rounds. The article reported:
Ed Stack, the chairman and chief executive of Dick’s Sporting Goods Inc., arrived at work the Monday after a gunman killed 17 people at a school in Parkland, Fla., nearly certain the outdoor retailer should limit sales of some guns.
. . . .
Dick’s Financial Chief Lee Belitsky asked, “So what’s the financial implication here?” according to Mr. Stack. “I basically said, I don’t really care what the financial implication is, but you’re right, we should look.”
Company executives convened the board via teleconference to explain the proposed plan, took some time to reflect, then gathered again a few days later to vote. “It was unanimous that we should do this and stand up and take a stand,” said Mr. Stack, whose family holds a controlling stake in the retailer.
This revelation led many folks to question whether Stack's statement that he did not "really care" about the financial implications was a breach of fiduciary duty. The concern was buoyed by the reality that store sales had dropped about 3% to 4% for the year, and the drop was linked to the decision to limit certain gun sales.
That said, a drop in sales does not mean there was a breach of any duty any more than an increase in sales means no breach occurred. Results may be evidence, but that's all they are. Part of the story. Incidentally, though it is not proof, either way, it is worth noting that Dick's sales dropped, but profits rose after the decision because the company cut costs by replacing some guns with higher-margin items.
It seems like every time a CEO or board issues a decision that is controversial or chooses to say that he or she supports a certain course of action because they think it is the "right thing to do," the questions begin about whether either the duty of care or loyalty has been breached. I maintain that a statement (or series of statements) like that is not sufficient to overcome the business judgment rule to allow a review of the decision.
This is especially true where, like in the Dick's situation, there is evidence that the company deliberated appropriately. The WSJ article noted that company executives called together the board to explain the proposed plan, "took some time to reflect, then gathered again a few days later to vote." The vote was unanimous to end all assault-style weapons sales and to and stop selling guns or ammunition to those under 21 years of age. Interestingly, Walmart Inc. and other retailers followed Dick's lead later that day. If the deliberative process is a concern, it would seem those following Dick's should be more vulnerable to a fiduciary duty/business judgment rule challenge than Dick's.
For what it's worth, I think Dick's or any store deciding NOT to change their sales practice would also be protected by the business judgment rule, just as I think Chick-Fil-A's decision not to open on Sundays should be protected by the business judgment rule (though if it were a Delaware corporation, I am not sure it would be).
This is not to say I don't believe in fiduciary duties. I very much do. I just also believe in a strong business judgment rule, ideally enforced as an abstention doctrine. (I believe in lots of things.)
I need more than a few public statements before I think anyone should be looking behind an entity's decision making. Recent examples raising entity fiduciary duty questions, like Dick's and Nike's Colin Kaepernick ads, have had positive financial outcomes of the entities, but it shouldn't matter. The business judgment rule is there to protect all the decisions of the board that are not the product of fraud, illegality, or self-dealing, not just correct decisions.
Friday, December 7, 2018
In January 2018, Larry Fink of Blackrock, the world’s largest asset manager, shocked skeptics like me when he told CEOs:
In the current environment, these stakeholders are demanding that companies exercise leadership on a broader range of issues. And they are right to: a company’s ability to manage environmental, social, and governance matters demonstrates the leadership and good governance that is so essential to sustainable growth, which is why we are increasingly integrating these issues into our investment process. Companies must ask themselves: What role do we play in the community? How are we managing our impact on the environment? Are we working to create a diverse workforce? Are we adapting to technological change? Are we providing the retraining and opportunities that our employees and our business will need to adjust to an increasingly automated world? Are we using behavioral finance and other tools to prepare workers for retirement, so that they invest in a way that will help them achieve their goals?
In October 2018, Blackrock declared, “sustainable investing is becoming mainstream investing.” The firm bundled six existing ESG EFT funds and launched six similar funds in Europe and looked like the model corporate citisen.
So does Blackrock actually divest from companies with human rights violations or that do not provide meaningful disclosures on human trafficking, child slavery, forced labor, or conflict minerals? The company did not publicly divest from gun manufacturers although it did “speak with” them in February after the Parkland school shooting; the company has stated that due to fiduciary concerns, it cannot divest from single companies in a portfolio.
In theory, a behemoth like Blackrock could have a significant impact on a firm’s ESG practices, if it so chose. It could set an example for companies and for other institutional investors by seeking (1) additional information after reviewing disclosures and/or (2) demanding changes in management if companies did not in fact, show a true commitment to ESG.
But I shouldn’t pick on Blackrock. Based on what I heard last week in Geneva at the UN Forum on Business and Human Rights, other investors outside of the SRI arena aren’t pressuring companies either. I attended the Forum for the fourth time with over 2,000 members from the business, NGO, civil society, academic, and governmental communities. There was a heavy focus this year on supply chain issues because 80% of the world’s goods travel through large, international companies.The Responsible Business Alliance and others stressed the importance of eradiating forced labor. Apple, Google, Microsoft, Intel, and Amnesty International focused on tech companies, artificial intelligence, and human rights implications. Rio Tinto and Nestle allowed an NGO to publicly criticize their disclosure reports in painstaking detail. An activist told the entire plenary that states needed to stop killing human rights defenders. In other words, business as usual at the Forum. Here are some of the takeaways from some of the sessions:
- NGO PODER warned that investors should not divest when companies are not living up to their responsibilities but instead should engage companies on ESG factors and demand board seats.
- The UN Working Group on Business and Human Rights observed that rating agencies can and should be a fast track to the board on ESG issues.
- A representative from the Sustainable Stock Exchanges Initiative, a joint initiative of UNCTAD, PRI, the UN Global Compact, and UNEP-FI, indicated that investors want to know if ESG information is material. It may be salient, but not material to some. 79 stock exchanges around the world have partnered with the SSEI. 39 have voluntary ESG disclosures and 16 have mandatory disclosures.
- The Business and Human Rights Resources Center noted that of 7,200 corporate statements mandated by the UK Modern Slavery Act, only 25% met the minimum requirements required by law. As they shocked the audience with this statistic, news alerts went out the Australia had finally passed its own anti slavery law.
- 40% of companies in apparel, agricultural, and extractive industries have a 0 (zero) score for human rights due diligence, indicating weak implementation of the UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights. The average score in the benchmark was only 27%.
- French companies must respond to the French Duty of Vigilance Law and the EU Nonfinancial Disclosure regulations, which have different approached to identifying risks. It could take six months to do an audit to do the disclosure, but investors rarely question the companies directly or the data.
- SAP Ariba found that 66% of consumers believe they have a duty to buy goods that are good for society and the environment and that sustainability is mostly driven by millennials and generation Z consumers.
- Nestle, the biggest food and beverage company in the world, requires its 165,000 suppliers to follow responsible sourcing standard especially for child and forced labor. The conglomerate partners with NGOs to conduct human rights impact assessments for their upstream suppliers.
- Apple has returned 30 million USD in recruitment fees to workers since 2008 to address forced labor and illegal practices. HP has also returned fees. The hotel industry has banded together to fight forced labor. Most responsible businesses have banned the use of recruitment fees but many workers still pay them to personnel agencies in the hopes of getting jobs with large companies.
- Many companies are now looking at human rights and ESG issues throughout their own supply chains but also with their joint venture, merger, and other key business partners.
- Rae Lindsay of Clifford Chance noted that avoiding legal risk is not the main role of human rights due diligence but lawyers working across disciplines can make sure that clients don’t inadvertently add to legal risk in deals. She encourages deal lawyers to become familiar with the risks and law and business students to learn about these issues.
So do investors care about ESG? Are these disclosure rules working? You wouldn’t think so by hearing the speakers at the Forum. On the other hand, proxy advisory firm ISS recently launched an Environmental and Social Quality Score to better evaluate the ESG risks in its portfolio companies. I’ll keep an eye out for any divestments or shareholder proposals.
I’m not holding my breath for too much progress next year at the Forum. While I was encouraged by the good work of many of the companies that attended, I remain convinced that the disclosure regime is ineffective in effectuating meaningful change in the world’s most vulnerable communities. Unless governments, rating agencies, investors, or consumers act, too many companies will continue to pay lip service to their human rights commitments.
December 7, 2018 in Compliance, Conferences, Corporate Governance, Corporations, CSR, Current Affairs, Human Rights, International Business, International Law, Marcia Narine Weldon, Shareholders | Permalink | Comments (1)
Thursday, November 29, 2018
I’d like to thank the Business Law Prof Blog for the opportunity to be a guest blogger! In this first post, I build on a subject of previous posts (here, here, and here): Theranos, a now defunct Silicon Valley health-care start-up.
I rely heavily on the Financial Times to follow developments in one of my main research areas: financial market clearing and settlement (I’ll plan to report next week on the upcoming December 4th meeting of the Market Risk Advisory Committee, sponsored by CFTC Commissioner Rostin Behnam). The FT recently announced that Wall Street Journal investigative reporter John Carreyrou’s book, Bad Blood: Secrets and Lies in a Silicon Valley Startup, had been named the FT/McKinsey Business Book of the Year 2018. Having immensely enjoyed reading past winners, I wasted no time in ensuring that Amazon Prime speedily delivered it to my doorstep.
Bad Blood is a riveting tale of Theranos’ spectacular rise and fall, and well-worth the reader’s time. A fun fact is that a pathologist blogger, Adam Clapper (founder of the former Pathology Blawg), tipped Carreyrou onto the Theranos story (Chapter 19). Additionally, in the months after Bad Blood’s publication, its founder and CEO, Elizabeth A. Holmes, and former COO, Ramesh “Sunny” Balwani, were charged by the Justice Department with wire fraud.
I know little about the health-care industry. Yet in reading Bad Blood, I was struck by links to and concerns shared with the financial industry (an area about which I know more). Below, I make a few observations and invite reader comments on their importance in these and other industries.
Post-financial crisis, rock-bottom interest rates acted as a “key ingredient” to a new Silicon Valley boom (p.82). Similarly, these low rates have also been a key ingredient for the many years of increasing stock market prices post-financial crisis. Indeed, recent equity market declines made at least a temporary rebound yesterday after comments by Federal Reserve Chairman Jerome Powell at the Economic Club of New York.
The increasing expansion of private markets enables companies such as Theranos to “avoid the close scrutiny” (p.178) to which public companies are subject (nevertheless, Theranos and Holmes settled fraud charges with the SEC). Given current regulatory structures, it also risks severely limiting retail investment opportunities. And it adversely impacts financial journalists’ access to information!
When I teach Banking and Financial Institutions Law, the term “regulation-induced innovation” tends to amuse students. The Theranos tale demonstrates, however, that such practices aren’t a laughing matter. For example, its business strategies appeared to include: maneuvering in regulatory “gray zones” between the FDA and Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (p.88), exploiting “gap[s] spawned by outdated statutes” (p.125), and “operat[in]g in a regulatory no-man’s-land” (p.260). Such practices can be troublesome enough in financial markets. However, in Theranos’ case, the stakes (patient health) were much higher.
Finally, who doesn’t love a good story? Carreyrou, a two-time Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist, is an expert storyteller. His portrayal of Holmes suggests that she too profoundly understood the power of stories, and that she had a bewitching talent for telling them. Clearly, untruthful, non-fictional narratives are generally unethical and, depending upon the context, might also be illegal. However, taking a cue from Holmes on the importance of stories and honing one's ability to tell them could assist financial market policymakers. Indeed, several years ago, the FT’s Gillian Tett wrote an opinion piece entitled, “Central bank chiefs need to master the art of storytelling.” Enhanced storytelling capabilities could also assist academics researching financial market regulation. For both, the ability to compellingly communicate with the public about issues in financial markets and their broad-based importance is critical. Even so, constructing a fascinating narrative about clearing and settlement along the lines of Bad Blood would be no small feat!
Friday, November 23, 2018
Greetings from Panama. Are you one of the people who look for products labeled "organic," "non-GMO," or "fair trade"? According to the official Fairtrade site:
Fairtrade is a simple way to make a difference to the lives of the people who grow the things we love. We do this by making trade fair.
Fairtrade is unique. We work with businesses, consumers and campaigners. Farmers and workers have an equal say in everything we do. Empowerment is at the core of who we are. We have a vision: a world in which all producers can enjoy secure and sustainable livelihoods, fulfill their potential and decide on their future. Our mission is to connect disadvantaged farmers and workers with consumers, promote fairer trading conditions and empower farmers and workers to combat poverty, strengthen their position and take more control over their lives....
Over and above the Fairtrade price, the Fairtrade Premium is an additional sum of money which goes into a communal fund for workers and farmers to use – as they see fit – to improve their social, economic and environmental conditions...
Fairtrade is about better prices, decent working conditions, local sustainability, and fair terms of trade for farmers and workers in the developing world. By requiring companies to pay sustainable prices (which must never fall lower than the market price), Fairtrade addresses the injustices of conventional trade, which traditionally discriminates against the poorest, weakest producers. It enables them to improve their position and have more control over their lives..
With Fairtrade you have the power to change the world every day. With simple shopping choices you can get farmers a better deal. And that means they can make their own decisions, control their future and lead the dignified life everyone deserves.
In 2016, farmers received 158 million euros in Fairtrade premiums.
This sounds great in theory, but according to a cacao farmer I spent time with in Panama, fair trade is not fair to the farmers. He and others in his indigenous tribe earn so little from the cacao exported to Switzerland for fine Swiss chocolate that he must resort to giving tours of his plantation in order to maintain the village school and pay for medical expenses for his tribe. His farm earns only 85 cents per half kilo of cacao (or 12 pods). This .85 cents is only for the exceptional cacao. Sometimes they earn even less. The Swiss tout the organic, non-GMO product and inspect the farms annually, which means that the farmers cannot use any fertilizers to combat the fungus that kills 85% of the crop every year. This also means that the farmers do everything by hand, including cutting, fermenting, roasting, and shelling the beans. The farmer/tour guide explained that they treat the cacao plants like a woman-- they love, cherish, and protect them every day. They use the same harvesting process that they have used for over 1,000 years.
Just like coffee farmers I met in Guatemala, the cacao farmer I met in Panama calls "fair trade" a marketing scheme for the Americans and Europeans. I assume the farmers I met represent the view of some portion of the 1.65 million farmers involved in the Fairtrade program. For more on the Fair Trade debate, see here.
I will have more on this and other sustainability issues next week. I'll be at UN Forum on Business and Human Rights with 2500 companies, NGOs, academics, and state representative in Geneva. In the meantime, if you're buying someone Fairtrade chocolate for the holidays, do it for the taste because you're not really doing much to help the farmer.
Tuesday, November 6, 2018
With just a few hours left to vote, I am taking this opportunity to ask you, if you have not already, to vote. Please. It is our opportunity to be heard.
So often people complain about money in politics, and I agree that raises concerns. But we always have the power to choose. We, the voters, always have the final say. We can impose term limits any time we want, by voting people out. If it is really a concern for us, we can overcome money in politics by choosing those who reject corporate interests. Either way, it is up to us. So, if you haven't already, please, please vote.
And if you already voted, thank you. Good work.
Saturday, October 13, 2018
Last week Dr. Denis Mukwege won the Nobel Peace Prize for his work on gender-based violence in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC). This short video interview describes what I saw when I went to DRC in 2011 to research the newly-enacted Dodd-Frank disclosure rule and to do the legwork for a non-profit that teaches midwives ways to deliver babies safely. For those unfamiliar with the legislation, U.S. issuers must disclose the efforts they have made to track and trace tin, tungsten, tantalum, and gold from the DRC and nine surrounding countries. Rebels and warlords control many of the mines by controlling the villages. DRC is one of the poorest nations in the world per capita but has an estimated $25 trillion in mineral reserves (including 65% of the world's cobalt). Armed militia use rape and violence as a weapon of war in part so that they control the mineral wealth.
The stated purpose of the Dodd-Frank rule was to help end the violence in DRC and to name and shame companies that do not disclose or that cannot certify that their goods are DRC-conflict free (although that labeling portion of the law was struck down on First Amendment grounds). I wrote a law review article in 2013 and co-filed an amicus brief during the litigation arguing that the law would not help people on the ground. I have also blogged here about legislation to end the rule, here about the EU's version of the rule, here about the differences between the EU and US rule, and half a dozen times since 2013.
I had the honor of meeting Dr. Mukwege in 2011, who at the time did not support the conflict minerals legislation. He has since endorsed such legislation for the EU. During our trip, we met dozens of women who had been raped, often by gangs. On our way to meet midwives and survivors of a massacre, I saw five corpses of villagers lying in the street. They were slain by rebels the night before. I saw children mining gold from a river with armed soldiers only a few feet away. That trip is the reason that I study, write, and teach about business and human rights. I had only been in academia for three weeks when I went to DRC, and I decided that my understanding of supply chains and corporate governance from my past in-house life could help others develop more practical solutions to intractable problems. I believed then and I believe now that using a corporate governance disclosure to solve a human rights crisis is a flawed and incomplete solution. It depends on the belief that large numbers of consumers will boycott companies that do not do enough for human rights.
What does the data say about compliance with the rule? The General Accounting Office puts out a mandatory report annually on the legislation and the state of disclosures. According to the 2018 report:
Similar to the prior 2 years, almost all companies required to conduct due diligence, as a result of their country-of-origin inquiries, reported doing so. After conducting due diligence to determine the source and chain of custody of any conflict minerals used, an estimated 37 percent of these companies reported in 2017 that they were able to determine that their conflict minerals came from covered countries or from scrap or recycled sources, compared with 39 and 23 percent in 2016 and 2015, respectively. Four companies in GAO’s sample declared their products “DRC conflict-free,” and of those, three included the required Independent Private Sector Audit report (IPSA), and one did not. In 2017, 16 companies filed an IPSA; 19 did so in 2016. (emphasis added).
But what about the effect on forced labor and rape? The 2017 GAO Report indicated that in 2016, a study in DRC estimated that 32 percent of women and 33 percent of men in these areas had been exposed to some form of sexual and gender-based violence in their lifetime. Notably, just last month, a coalition of Congolese civil society organizations wrote the following to the United Nations seeking a country-wide monitoring system:
... Armed groups and security forces have attacked civilians in many parts of the country...Today, some 4.5 million Congolese are displaced from their homes. More than 100,000 Congolese have fled abroad since January 2018, raising the risk of increased regional instability... Since early this year, violence intensified in various parts of northeastern Congo’s Ituri province, with terrifying incidents of massacres, rapes, and decapitation. Armed groups launched deadly attacks on villages, killing scores of civilians, torching hundreds of homes, and displacing an estimated 350,000 people. Armed groups and security forces in the Kivu provinces also continue to attack civilians. According to the Kivu Security Tracker, assailants, including state security forces, killed more than 580 civilians and abducted at least 940 others in North and South Kivu since January 2018. (emphasis added)
The U.S. government provides $500 million in aid to the DRC and runs an app called Sweat and Toil for people who are interested in avoiding goods produced by exploited labor. As of today, DRC has seven goods produced with exploitative labor: cobalt (used in electric cars and cell phones), copper, diamonds, and, not surprisingly, tin, tungsten, tantalum, and gold- the four minerals regulated by Dodd-Frank. The app notes that "for the second year in a row, labor inspectors have failed to conduct any worksite inspections... and [the] government also separated as many as 2,360 children from armed groups...[t]here were numerous reports of ongoing collaboration between members of the [DRC] Armed Forces and non-state armed groups known for recruiting children... The Armed Forces carried out extrajudicial killings of civilians including children, due to their perceived support or affiliation with non-state armed groups. .."
For these reasons, I continue to ask whether the conflict minerals legislation has made a difference in the lives of the people on the ground. The EU, learning from Dodd-Frank's flaws, has passed its own legislation, which goes into effect in 2021. The EU law applies beyond the Democratic Republic of Congo and defines conflict areas as those in a state of armed conflict, or fragile post-conflict area, areas with weak or nonexistent governance and security such as failed states, and any state with a widespread or systematic violation of international law including human rights abuses. Certain European Union importers will have to identify and address the actual potential risks linked to conflict-affected areas or high-risk areas during the due diligence of their supply chains.
Notwithstanding the statistics above, many investors, NGOs, and other advocates believe the Dodd-Frank rule makes sense. A coalition of investors with 50 trillion worth of assets under management has pushed to keep the law in place. It's no surprise then that many issuers have said that they would continue the due diligence even if the law were repealed. I doubt that will help people in these countries, but the due diligence does help drive out inefficiencies and optimize supply chains.
Stay tuned for my upcoming article in UT's business law journal, Transactions, where I will discuss how companies and state actors are using blockchain technology for due diligence related to human rights. Blockchain will minimize expenses and time for these disclosure requirements, but it probably won't stop the forced labor, exploitation, rapes, and massacres that continue in the Democratic Republic of Congo. (See here for a Fortune magazine article with a great video discussing how and why companies are exploring blockchain's uses in DRC). The blockchain technology won't be the problem-- it's already being used for tracing conflict diamonds. The problem is using the technology in a state with such lawlessness. This means that blockchain will probably help companies, but not the people the laws are meant to protect.
October 13, 2018 in Compliance, Corporate Governance, Corporations, CSR, Current Affairs, Human Rights, International Business, International Law, Legislation, Marcia Narine Weldon, Securities Regulation | Permalink | Comments (1)
Monday, October 8, 2018
BLPB reader Tom N. sent me a link to this article last week by email. The article covers Elon Musk's taunting of the U.S Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) in a post on Twitter. The post followed on the SEC's settlement with Musk and Tesla, Inc. of a legal action relating to a prior Twitter post. The title of Tom N.'s message? "Musk Pokes the Bear in the Eye." Exactly what I was thinking (and I told him so) when I had read the same article earlier that day! This post is dedicated to Tom N. (and the rest of you who have been following the Musk affair).
Last week, I wrote about scienter issues in the securities fraud allegations against Elon Musk, following on Ann Lipton's earlier post on materiality in the same context. This week, I want to focus on state corporate law--specifically, fiduciary duty law. The idea for this post arises from a quotation in the article Tom N. and I read last week. The quotation relates to an order from the judge in the SEC's action against Musk and Tesla, Alison Nathan, that the parties jointly explain and justify the fairness and reasonableness of their settlement and why the settlement would not hurt the public interest. Friend and Michigan Law colleague Adam Pritchard offered (as quoted in the article): “She may want to know why Tesla is paying a fine because the CEO doesn’t know when to shut up.” Yes, Adam. I agree.
What about that? According to the article, the SEC settlement with Musk and Tesla "prevents Musk from denying wrongdoing or suggesting that the regulator’s allegations were untrue." The taunting tweet does not exactly deny wrongdoing or suggest that the SEC's allegations against him were untrue. Yet, it comes close by mocking the SEC's enforcement activities against Musk and Tesla. Musk's action in tweeting negatively about the SEC is seemingly--in the eyes of a reasonable observer--an intentional action that may have the propensity to damage Tesla.
At the very least, the tweet appears to be contrary to the best interests of the firm. But is it a manifestation of bad faith that constitutes a breach of the duty of loyalty under Delaware law? As most of us well know,
[b]ad faith has been defined as authorizing a transaction "for some purpose other than a genuine attempt to advance corporate welfare or [when the transaction] is known to constitute a violation of applicable positive law." In other words, an action taken with the intent to harm the corporation is a disloyal act in bad faith. . . . [B]ad faith (or lack of good faith) is when a director acts in a manner "unrelated to a pursuit of the corporation's best interests." It makes no difference the reason why the director intentionally fails to pursue the best interests of the corporation.
Bad faith can be the result of "any emotion [that] may cause a director to [intentionally] place his own interests, preferences or appetites before the welfare of the corporation," including greed, "hatred, lust, envy, revenge, . . . shame or pride."
In Re Walt Disney Co. Derivative Litigation, 907 A.2d 693, 753-54 (Del. Ch. 2005). Of course, Musk was not authorizing a transaction--or even clearly acting for or on behalf of Tesla--in making his taunting tweet. But he is identified strongly with Tesla, and his tweet was intentional and inconsistent with the best interests of the firm. Did he intend to harm Tesla in posting his tweet? Perhaps not. Did he act in a manner "unrelated to a pursuit of the corporation's best interests?" Perhaps. The tweet is certainly an imprudent (and likely grossly negligent or reckless) action that appears to result from Musk intentionally placing his own hatred or revenge ahead of the interests of Tesla.
"To act in good faith, a director must act at all times with an honesty of purpose and in the best interests and welfare of the corporation." Id. at 755. Yet, it is unclear how far that goes in a Twitter-happy world in which the personal blends into the professional. Musk was (in all likelihood) not taking action as a director or officer of Tesla when he tweeted his taunt. Yet, he was undoubtedly cognizant that he occupied those roles and that his actions likely had an effect on the firm. Should his fiduciary duties extend to this type of conduct?
And what about the Tesla board's duty to monitor? Does it extend to monitoring Musk's personal tweeting? E.g., the argument made in the Chancery Court's opinion in Beam Ex Rel. Martha Stewart Living Omnimedia, Inc. v. Stewart. Even of not mandated by fiduciary duty law, the SEC clearly wants the board to have that monitoring responsibility. The settlement with the SEC reportedly provides for "Tesla’s board to implement procedures for reviewing Musk’s communications with investors, which include tweets." More for us all to think about when we think about Elon Musk and Tesla . . . . It's always best not to poke the bear.
Monday, October 1, 2018
I have been so grateful for Ann Lipton's blog posts (see here and here) and tweets about Elon Musk's going-private-funding-is-secure tweet affair. Her post on materiality on Saturday--just before the SEC settlement was announced--was especially interesting (but, of course, that's one of my favorite areas to work in . . .). She tweeted about the settlement here:
[Note: this is a screenshot.] Ann may have more to say about that in another post; she did add a postscript to her Saturday post reporting the settlement . . . .
But I also find myself wondering about another of the contentious issues in Section 10(b)/Rule 10b-5 litigation: scienter. This New York Times article made me think a bit on the point. It tells a tale--apparently relayed to the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) in connection with its inquiry into the tweet incident--of fairly typical back-room discussions between/among business principals. This part of the article especially stuck with me in that regard:
On an evening in March 2017, . . . Mr. Musk and Tesla’s chief financial officer dined at the Tesla factory in Fremont, Calif., with Larry Ellison, the chairman of Oracle, and Yasir Al Rumayyan, the managing director of the Saudi Public Investment Fund. During the meal, . . . Mr. Rumayyan raised the idea of taking Tesla private and increasing the Saudi fund’s stake in it.
More than a year later, . . . Mr. Musk and Mr. Rumayyan met at the Tesla factory on July 31. When Mr. Rumayyan spoke again of taking the company private, Mr. Musk asked him whether anyone else at the fund needed to approve of such a significant deal. Mr. Rumayyan said no . . . .
Could Musk have actually believed that a handshake was all that was needed here? We all know a handshake can be significant. (See here and here for the key facts relating to the now infamous Texaco/Getty/Pennzoil case.) But should Musk have taken (or at least should he have known that he should take) more care to verify before tweeting? In other words, can Musk and his legal counsel actually believe they can prove that Musk (1) had no knowledge that his tweet was false and (2) was merely negligent--not reckless--in relying on the oral assurance of a business principal to commit to a $70+ billion transaction?
Don Langevoort has written cogently and passionately about the law governing scienter. One of my favorite articles he has written on scienter is republished in my Martha Stewart book. What he urges in that piece is that the motive and purpose of a potentially fraudulent disclosure are not the relevant considerations in determining the existence of scienter. Rather, the key question is whether the disclosing party (here, Musk) knew or recklessly disregarded the fact that what he was saying was false. Join this, Don notes, with the securities fraud requirement that manipulation or deception be in connection with the purchase or sale of a security, and the test becomes not merely whether Musk misrepresented material fact or misleadingly omitted to state material fact, but also whether he could reasonably foresee the likely impact of his misrepresentation on the market for Tesla's securities.
On the one hand, as Ann points out in her post on Saturday, a number of investors in the market thought the tweet was a joke. Given that, might we assume that Musk--a person perhaps similarly experienced in finance--knew or should have known that his tweet was false? On the other hand, as Ann notes in her post, the SEC's complaint states that "market analysts - sophisticated people - privately contacted Tesla’s head of investor relations for more information and were assured that the tweet was legit. So that’s evidence the market took it seriously." Yet, Musk might just be presumptuous enough to believe he could reasonably rely on an oral promise by a person who is in control of executing on that promise--thinking it represented a deal (although, of course, not one that experienced legal counsel would understand to be legally, or even morally, binding or enforceable). Too wealthy men jawing about a deal . . . .Puffery, or the way business actually is done in this crowd?
Based on what I know today (which is not terribly much), my sense is that a court should find that Musk acted in reckless disregard of the falsity of his words and understood the likely impact those words would have on the trading of his firm's stock. To find otherwise based on the specific facts alleged to have occurred here would inject too much subjectivity into the (admittedly subjective) determination of scienter. But we shall see. As Ann noted in Saturday's post, a private class action also has been brought against Musk and Tesla based on the tweet affair. So, we may yet see the materiality and scienter issues play themselves out in court (although I somehow doubt it).
Tuesday, September 18, 2018
Last week, I made the argument that Nike's Kaepernick Ad Is the Most Business Judgmenty Thing Ever. I still think so.
To build on that post (in part based on good comments I received on that post), I think it is worth exploring that ability and appropriateness of boards delegating certain duties, as this impacts any assessment of the business judgment rule.
As co-blogger Stefan Padfield correctly noted, directors "become informed of all material information reasonably available." However, does that apply to a particular ad campaign? Hiring of all spokespeople? Only certain ones? How about a particular ad? Or is it the hiring of a marketing and ad team (internally or externally)?
Nike has a long list of sponsorship (here) for teams and individuals. I sincerely doubt that all of those were run by the board of directors, though it is possible. The board may also weigh in from time to time, based on the behavior of the people they sponsor. Nike famously terminated contracts with Oscar Pistorius and Ray Rice in September 2014. Are these all board decisions? Maybe. Or maybe they have a protocol for dealing with such issues. Regardless, how they deal with this seems plainly within the BJR.
Now, I also would agree that there comes a time when the board would need to do more with regard to their advertising and sponsorships, if they were on notice of a problem with their sponsored athletes, not unlike a Caremark duty or its predecessor. In discussing the applicability of the business judgment rule, an older, but classic, Delaware case stated, “it appears that directors are entitled to rely on the honesty and integrity of their subordinates until something occurs to put them on suspicion that something is wrong. If such occurs and goes unheeded, [only] then liability of the directors might well follow . . . “ Graham v. Allis-Chalmers Mfg. Co., 41 Del. Ch. 78, 85, 188 A.2d 125, 130 (1963).
When I started to write this, I did not know if Nike's board of directors saw this ad before it went out (more on that below). I expect they did (or at least knew about it), but I'm not sure. Even it if the ad were raised with the board for informational purposes, trusting the judgment and recommendation of your marketing executives seems imminently reasonable to me. It seems to me that how the board chooses to work with their marketing people fall plainly under the business judgment rule (BJR) unless shareholders can rebut the presumption that the BJR applies. It's not like marketing mistakes are not common. Most years there are recap articles about the works gaffes in marketing for the year. This one from 2017 is a particularly good example, and I don't think any of them would be likely to lead to director liability.
The scope and power of board delegation of such duties would be a good topic for further research. I certainly concede that there are times when such decisions look more like board decisions that require an appropriate process and perhaps some demonstration of due care. Maybe that goes to a need to review ads with certain risk factors, but you'd still have to delegate the decision about what needs to come to the board to someone. And do you need such a process absent notice that your ad folks are taking enormous risks? Is this a Caremark/Allis-Chalmers issue? Or could negligent hiring be the failure, if the ad folks are insane?
Support for my assumptions, and for the idea that Nike, at least, views this as a delegation question, arrived in this breaking news from CNBC, which appeared as I was writing this blog post:
But Comstock, also a former vice chair of General Electric, said Parker didn't need the board's permission before running a "Just Do It" campaign featuring the former San Francisco 49ers quarterback.
"Parker runs the company really well," Comstock said on CNBC's "Squawk on the Street," while also commenting about the new China tariffs. Parker "certainly doesn't need board approval to figure out where to run an ad," she added.
In the end, we know marketing decisions can harm stock prices, but we also know risky marketing decisions can improve stock prices. That very fact, I maintain, puts this decision squarely in the BJR zone.
Sunday, September 16, 2018
I knew it would be impossible. There was no way to relay my excitement about the potential of blockchain technology in a concise way to lawyers and law students last Friday at the Connecting the Threads symposium at the University of Tennessee School of Law. I didn't discuss cryptocurrency or Bitcoin other than to say that I wasn't planning to discuss it. Still, there wasn't nearly enough time for me to discuss all of the potential use cases. I did try to make it clear that it's not a fad if IBM has 1500 people working on it, BITA has hundreds of logistics and freight companies signed up to explore possibilities, and the World Bank, OECD, and United Nations have studies and pilot programs devoted to it. As a former supply chain person, compliance officer, and chief privacy officer, I'm giddy with excitement about everything related to distributed ledger technology other than cryptocurrency. You can see why when you read my law review article in a few months in Transactions.
I've watched over 100 YouTube videos (many of them crappy) and read dozens of articles. I go to Meetups and actually understand what the coders and developers are saying (most of the time). A few students and practitioners asked me how I learned about DLT/blockchain. First, see here, here, here, and here for my prior posts listing resources and making the case for learning the basics of the technology. What I list below adds to what I've posted in the past.
Here are some of the podcasts I listen to (there are others, of course):
1) The Decrypting Crypto Podcast
2) Block that Chain
3) Block and Roll
4) Blockchain Innovation
Here are some of the videos that I watched (that I haven't already linked to in past posts):
There are dozens more, but this should be enough to get you started. Remember, none of these videos or podcasts will get you rich from cryptocurrency. But they will help you become competent to know whether you can advise clients on these issues.
September 16, 2018 in Compliance, Corporate Governance, Corporations, CSR, Current Affairs, Financial Markets, Human Rights, Law Firms, Law Reviews, Law School, Lawyering, Marcia Narine Weldon | Permalink | Comments (1)
Monday, September 10, 2018
I am writing this fall about (among other things) business deregulation in the Trump era. Given that the President's campaign for office featured business deregulation as a prominent tenet, it seems like a good time to visit what's been done to fulfill those campaign promises. Business being a broad area for focus, I am trying to narrow the subject down a bit by picking some salient examples.
I reference the early executive orders on agency rule rulemaking and assessments of their success. See, e.g., here and here. But the deregulatory moves impacting business that have gotten the most media attention are the Trump administration's tax cuts and a few smaller initiatives--like the tamp-backs to parts of bank regulation in the Dodd–Frank Wall Street Reform and Consumer Protection Act. Apart from these headline items, what catches your attention, if anything, about the current administration's forays into deregulation? I would be interested in knowing.
Of course, there also are areas where it seems that there is new business regulation or business re-regulation rather than business deregulation. Perhaps the most prominent area in which the current administration has taken a non-deregulatory approach to business operation is in international trade. The reported outcome of recent trade talks with Mexico, for example, as well as the imposition of significant tariffs on Chinese imports earlier this year, have both been classified as contrary or counterproductive to a deregulatory agenda. See, e.g., here and here, respectively. Query whether and, if so, how these contrary or counterproductive measures should be weighed in any evaluation of business deregulatory success . . . .
And that's just it. Successful deregulation is somewhat in the eye of the beholder. No single reference point represents an established determinant or embodiment of deregulatory triumph. There are no standardized rules of the road governing the evaluation of efficacious deregulatory actions (taken individually or collectively). Thus, political and other biases often underlie reports of effective or ineffective deregulatory initiatives, just as they underlie reports of effective or ineffective regulatory initiatives, even though deregulatory impact may intuitively seem to be more capable of simple measurement and objective assessment.
I will be presenting a draft paper on business deregulation during the Trump administration at an upcoming symposium sponsored by the Mercer Law Review. The symposium, "Corporate Law in the Trump Era," will be held on October 5 at the Mercer University School of Law. I will have more to say on that essay in later posts, I am sure. But for now, I invite you to let me know what current areas of business deregulation interest you most. I would like to make my choices meaningful to the target audience for this essay, which likely includes many BLPB readers.