Friday, September 24, 2021
Ten Ethical Traps for Business Lawyers
I'm so excited to present later this morning at the University of Tennessee College of Law Connecting the Threads Conference today at 10:45 EST. Here's the abstract from my presentation. In future posts, I will dive more deeply into some of these issues. These aren't the only ethical traps, of course, but there's only so many things you can talk about in a 45-minute slot.
All lawyers strive to be ethical, but they don’t always know what they don’t know, and this ignorance can lead to ethical lapses or violations. This presentation will discuss ethical pitfalls related to conflicts of interest with individual and organizational clients; investing with clients; dealing with unsophisticated clients and opposing counsel; competence and new technologies; the ever-changing social media landscape; confidentiality; privilege issues for in-house counsel; and cross-border issues. Although any of the topics listed above could constitute an entire CLE session, this program will provide a high-level overview and review of the ethical issues that business lawyers face.
Specifically, this interactive session will discuss issues related to ABA Model Rules 1.5 (fees), 1.6 (confidentiality), 1.7 (conflicts of interest), 1.8 (prohibited transactions with a client), 1.10 (imputed conflicts of interest), 1.13 (organizational clients), 4.3 (dealing with an unrepresented person), 7.1 (communications about a lawyer’s services), 8.3 (reporting professional misconduct); and 8.4 (dishonesty, fraud, deceit).
Discussion topics will include:
- Do lawyers have an ethical duty to take care of their wellbeing? Can a person with a substance use disorder or major mental health issue ethically represent their client? When can and should an impaired lawyer withdraw? When should a lawyer report a colleague?
- What ethical obligations arise when serving on a nonprofit board of directors? Can a board member draft organizational documents or advise the organization? What potential conflicts of interest can occur?
- What level of technology competence does an attorney need? What level of competence do attorneys need to advise on technology or emerging legal issues such as SPACs and cryptocurrencies? Is attending a CLE or law school course enough?
- What duties do lawyers have to educate themselves and advise clients on controversial issues such as business and human rights or ESG? Is every business lawyer now an ESG lawyer?
- What ethical rules apply when an in-house lawyer plays both a legal role and a business role in the same matter or organization? When can a lawyer representing a company provide legal advice to an employee?
- With remote investigations, due diligence, hearings, and mediations here to stay, how have professional duties changed in the virtual world? What guidance can we get from ABA Formal Opinion 498 issued in March 2021? How do you protect confidential information and also supervise others remotely?
- What social media practices run afoul of ethical rules and why? How have things changed with the explosion of lawyers on Instagram and TikTok?
- What can and should a lawyer do when dealing with a businessperson on the other side of the deal who is not represented by counsel or who is represented by unsophisticated counsel?
- When should lawyers barter with or take an equity stake in a client? How does a lawyer properly disclose potential conflicts?
- What are potential gaps in attorney-client privilege protection when dealing with cross-border issues?
If you need some ethics CLE, please join in me and my co-bloggers, who will be discussing their scholarship. In case Joan Heminway's post from yesterday wasn't enough to entice you...
Professor Anderson’s topic is “Insider Trading in Response to Expressive Trading”, based upon his upcoming article for Transactions. He will also address the need for business lawyers to understand the rise in social-media-driven trading (SMD trading) and options available to issuers and their insiders when their stock is targeted by expressive traders.
Professor Baker’s topic is “Paying for Energy Peaks: Learning from Texas' February 2021 Power Crisis.” Professor Baker will provide an overview of the regulation of Texas’ electric power system and the severe outages in February 2021, explaining why Texas is on the forefront of challenges that will grow more prominent as the world transitions to cleaner energy. Next, it explains competing electric power business models and their regulation, including why many had long viewed Texas’ approach as commendable, and why the revealed problems will only grow more pressing. It concludes by suggesting benefits and challenges of these competing approaches and their accompanying regulation.
Professor Heminway’s topic is “Choice of Entity: The Fiscal Sponsorship Alternative to Nonprofit Incorporation.” Professor Heminway will discuss how for many small business projects that qualify for federal income tax treatment under Section 501(a) of the U.S. Internal Revenue Code of 1986, as amended, the time and expense of organizing, qualifying, and maintaining a tax-exempt nonprofit corporation may be daunting (or even prohibitive). Yet there would be advantages to entity formation and federal tax qualification that are not available (or not easily available) to unincorporated business projects. Professor Heminway addresses this conundrum by positing a third option—fiscal sponsorship—and articulating its contextual advantages.
Professor Moll’s topic is “An Empirical Analysis of Shareholder Oppression Disputes.” This panel will discuss how the doctrine of shareholder oppression protects minority shareholders in closely held corporations from the improper exercise of majority control, what factors motivate a court to find oppression liability, and what factors motivate a court to reject an oppression claim. Professor Moll will also examine how “oppression” has evolved from a statutory ground for involuntary dissolution to a statutory ground for a wide variety of relief.
Professor Murray’s topic is “Enforcing Benefit Corporation Reporting.” Professor Murray will begin his discussion by focusing on the increasing number of states that have included express punishments in their benefit corporation statutes for reporting failures. Part I summarizes and compares the statutory provisions adopted by various states regarding benefit reporting enforcement. Part II shares original compliance data for states with enforcement provisions and compares their rates to the states in the previous benefit reporting studies. Finally, Part III discusses the substance of the benefit reports and provides law and governance suggestions for improving social benefit.
All of this and more from the comfort of your own home. Hope to see you on Zoom today and next year in person at the beautiful UT campus.
September 24, 2021 in Colleen Baker, Compliance, Conferences, Contracts, Corporate Governance, Corporate Personality, Corporations, CSR, Current Affairs, Delaware, Ethics, Financial Markets, Haskell Murray, Human Rights, International Business, Joan Heminway, John Anderson, Law Reviews, Law School, Lawyering, Legislation, Litigation, M&A, Management, Marcia Narine Weldon, Nonprofits, Research/Scholarhip, Securities Regulation, Shareholders, Social Enterprise, Teaching, Unincorporated Entities, White Collar Crime | Permalink | Comments (0)
Friday, August 14, 2020
Wokewashing and the Board
As an academic and consultant on environmental, social, and governance (ESG) matters, I’ve used a lot of loaded terms -- greenwashing, where companies tout an environmentally friendly record but act otherwise; pinkwashing, where companies commoditize breast cancer awareness or LGBTQ issues; and bluewashing, where companies rally around UN corporate social responsibility initiatives such as the UN Global Compact.
In light of recent events, I’ve added a new term to my arsenal—wokewashing. Wokewashing occurs when a company attempts to show solidarity with certain causes in order to gain public favor. Wokewashing isn’t a new term. It’s been around for years, but it gained more mainstream traction last year when Unilever’s CEO warned that companies were eroding public trust and industry credibility, stating:
Woke-washing is beginning to infect our industry. It’s polluting purpose. It’s putting in peril the very thing which offers us the opportunity to help tackle many of the world’s issues. What’s more, it threatens to further destroy trust in our industry, when it’s already in short supply… There are too many examples of brands undermining purposeful marketing by launching campaigns which aren’t backing up what their brand says with what their brand does. Purpose-led brand communications is not just a matter of ‘make them cry, make them buy’. It’s about action in the world.
The Black Lives Matter and anti-racism movements have brought wokewashing front and center again. My colleague Stefan Padfield has written about the need for heightened scrutiny of politicized decisions and corporate responses to the BLM movement here, here, and here, and Ann Lipton has added to the discussion here. How does a board decide what to do when faced with pressure from stakeholders? How much is too much and how little is too little?
The students in my summer Regulatory Compliance, Corporate Governance, and Sustainability course were torn when they acted as board members deciding whether to make a public statement on Black Lives Matter and the murder of George Floyd. As fiduciaries of a consumer goods company, the “board members” felt that they had to say “something,” but in the days before class they had seen the explosion of current and former employees exposing companies with strong social justice messaging by pointing to hypocrisy in their treatment of employees and stakeholders. They had witnessed the controversy over changing the name of the Redskins based on pressure from FedEx and other sponsors (and not the Native Americans and others who had asked for the change for years). They had heard about the name change of popular syrup, Aunt Jemima. I intentionally didn’t force my students to draft a statement. They merely had to decide whether to speak at all, and this was difficult when looking at the external realities. Most of the students voted to make some sort of statement even as every day on social media, another “woke” company had to defend itself in the court of public opinion. Others, like Nike, have received praise for taking a strong stand in the face of public pressure long before it was cool and profitable to be “woke.”
Now it’s time for companies to defend themselves in actual court (assuming plaintiffs can get past various procedural hurdles). Notwithstanding Facebook and Oracle’s Delaware forum selection bylaws, the same lawyers who filed the shareholder derivative action against Google after its extraordinary sexual harassment settlement have filed shareholder derivative suits in California against Facebook, Oracle, and Qualcomm. Among other things, these suits generally allege breach of the Caremark duty, false statements in proxy materials purporting to have a commitment to diversity, breach of fiduciary duty relating to a diverse slate of candidates for board positions, and unjust enrichment. Plaintiffs have labeled these cases civil rights suits, targeting Facebook for allowing hate speech and discriminatory advertising, Qualcomm for underpaying women and minorities by $400 million, and Oracle for having no Black board members or executives. Oracle also faces a separate class action lawsuit based on unequal pay and gender.
Why these companies? According to the complaints, “[i]f Oracle simply disclosed that it does not want any Black individuals on its Board, it would be racist but honest…” and “[a]t Facebook, apparently Zuckerberg wants Blacks to be seen but not heard.” Counsel Bottini explained, “when you actually go back and look at these proxy statements and what they’ve filed with the SEC, they’re actually lying to shareholders.”
I’m not going to discuss the merits of these cases. Instead, for great analysis, please see here written by attorneys at my old law firm Cleary Gottlieb. I’ll do some actual legal analysis during my CLE presentation at the University of Tennessee Transactions conference on October 16th.
Instead, I’m going to make this a little more personal. I’m used to being the only Black person and definitely the only Black woman in the room. It’s happened in school, at work, on academic panels, and in organizations. When I testified before Congress on a provision of Dodd-Frank, a Black Congressman who grilled me mercilessly during my testimony came up to me afterwards to tell me how rare it was to see a Black woman testify about anything, much less corporate issues. He expressed his pride. For these reasons, as a Black woman in the corporate world, I’m conflicted about these lawsuits. Do corporations need to do more? Absolutely. Is litigation the right mechanism? I don’t know.
What will actually change? Whether or not these cases ever get past motions to dismiss, the defendant companies are likely to take some action. They will add the obligatory Black board members and executives. They will donate to various “woke” causes. They will hire diversity consultants. Indeed, many of my colleagues who have done diversity, equity, and inclusion work for years are busier than they have ever been with speaking gigs and training engagements. But what will actually change in the long term for Black employees, consumers, suppliers, and communities?
When a person is hired or appointed as the “token,” especially after a lawsuit, colleagues often believe that the person is under or unqualified. The new hire or appointee starts under a cloud of suspicion and sometimes resentment. Many eventually resign or get pushed out. Ironically, I personally know several diversity officers who have left their positions with prestigious companies because they were hired as window dressing. Although I don’t know Morgan Stanley’s first Chief Diversity Officer, Marilyn Booker, her story is familiar to me, and she has now filed suit against her own company alleging racial bias.
So I’ll keep an eye on what these defendants and other companies do. Actions speak louder than words. I don’t think that shareholder derivative suits are necessarily the answer, but at least they may prompt more companies to have meaningful conversations that go beyond hashtag activism.
August 14, 2020 in Ann Lipton, Compliance, Consulting, Corporate Governance, Corporate Personality, Corporations, CSR, Current Affairs, Delaware, Financial Markets, Management, Marcia Narine Weldon, Shareholders, Stefan J. Padfield | Permalink | Comments (0)
Tuesday, February 25, 2020
LLCs Are Not Corporations: A New Hero Emerges
The Honorable Aida M. Delgado-Colón made me smile today. As BLPB readers know, An LLC By Any Other Name, Is Still Not a Corporation. Finally, I received a notice of a court acknowledging this fact and requiring a party to refer to their legal entity correctly. Judge Delgado-Colón writes:
Pursuant to this Court’s sua sponte obligation to inquire into its own subject matter jurisdiction and noticing the unprecedented increase in foreclosure litigation in this District, the Court ordered plaintiff to clarify whether it is a corporation or a limited liability company (“LLC”).
Here, the Court cannot ascertain that diversity exists among the parties. Rule 11(b) of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure holds attorneys responsible for “assur[ing] that all pleadings, motions and papers filed with the court are factually well-grounded, legally tenable and not interposed for any improper purpose.” Mariani v. Doctors Associates, Inc., 983 F.2d 5, 7 (1st Cir. 1993) (citing Cooter & Gell v. Hartmarx Corp., 496 U.S. 384, 393 (1990). Despite Rule 11’s mandate, the Court finds significant inconsistencies among plaintiff’s representations, which to this date remain unclear. As noted at ECF No. 53, plaintiff has repeatedly failed to explain why its alleged principal place of business is in New Jersey instead of Michigan. To make matters worse, plaintiff now claims to be a “limited liability corporation”1 under Delaware law.
February 25, 2020 in Corporations, Delaware, Joshua P. Fershee, Litigation, LLCs | Permalink | Comments (2)
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):
§ 18-1101 Construction and application of chapter and limited liability company agreement.
. . .
(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.
December 15, 2019 in Contracts, Delaware, Joshua P. Fershee, Litigation, LLCs | Permalink | Comments (0)
Monday, December 9, 2019
Delaware's Duty of Care: Mrs. Pritchard Redux
This post is dedicated to the students in my Business Associations class, who took their final exam this morning.
Two weeks ago, reflecting on Francis v. United Jersey Bank, 432 A. 2d 814 (N.J. 1981), I asked for commentary on the following question: "How would the Francis case be pleaded, proven, and decided as a breach of duty action under Delaware law?" That post generated some commentary--both online and in private messages to me. In this post, I forward an analysis and a related request for commentary.
A number of commentators (including BLPB co-blogger Doug Moll in the online comments to my post) posited that a Caremark oversight claim may be the appropriate claim, and that the cause of action would be for a breach of the duty of care. I find the latter part of that answer contestable. Here is my analysis.
I begin by agreeing that Mrs. Pritchard's abdication of responsibility constitutes a failure to exercise oversight. Under the Delaware Supreme Court's decision in Stone v. Ritter, I understand that claim to be Caremark claim. ("Caremark articulates the necessary conditions for assessing director oversight liability.") I think many, if not most, are also in agreement on this.
Here is where there may be some divergence. Also relying on Stone, I understand that Caremark claim as a breach of the duty of loyalty, founded on a failure to act in good faith. ("[B]ecause a showing of bad faith conduct . . . is essential to establish director oversight liability, the fiduciary duty violated by that conduct is the duty of loyalty.") This makes sense to me because of the Delaware Supreme Court's opinion in Brehm v. Eisner, in which it circumscribes the duty of care. ("Due care in the decisionmaking context is process due care only.")
However, Brehm (as evidenced in the immediately preceding parenthetical quote) addressed the duty of care under Delaware law in a decision-making context. Francis was largely a case about the absence of decision making. Moreover, the Brehm court's view on a substantive duty of care are rooted in the contradiction of that doctrine with the business judgment rule. ("As for the plaintiffs' contention that the directors failed to exercise 'substantive due care,' we should note that such a concept is foreign to the business judgment rule. Courts do not measure, weigh or quantify directors' judgments.") So, Brehm's wisdom on the duty of care under Delaware law may be inapplicable to facts like those in Francis, since the business judgment rule is inapplicable because the board did not engage in decision making.
Nevertheless, Stone seems to erect barriers to a duty of care claim for oversight like that presented in the Francis case. BLPB co-blogger Anne Tucker voiced this concern in a 2010 article in the Delaware Journal of Corporate Law
Exculpatory provisions that eliminate liability for negligence and gross negligence (i.e., the duty of care), combined with the assumption of the duty of good faith under the liability standard for the duty of loyalty, narrow the standard of liability for director oversight. The result is while directors have three fiduciary duties-the duties of care, good faith, and loyalty-the three standards of conduct are essentially collapsed into one actionable standard: the duty of loyalty.
Anne Tucker Nees, Who's the Boss? Unmasking Oversight Liability Within the Corporate Power Puzzle, 35 Del. J. Corp. L. 199, 224–25 (2010). Lyman Johnson similarly had commented, seven years earlier (and before the Stone case was decided) that
care has been rendered a “small” notion in corporate law. It largely refers to the manner in which directors are to act. It is a process-oriented duty to act “with care.” Having confined care to that narrow chamber, the other meanings of care as found in the phrases “take care of” (the corporation) and “care for” (the corporation) remain fully available for infusion into corporate law through an expansive duty of loyalty.
Lyman Johnson, After Enron: Remembering Loyalty Discourse in Corporate Law, 28 Del. J. Corp. L. 27, 72 (2003). Others also have written about this.
Based on the foregoing, I conclude that a duty of care cause of action is not available in Delaware for an oversight claim like that raised in Francis. Delaware's duty of care comprises the duty to fully inform oneself of material information reasonably available under Smith v. Van Gorkom. As a result, an oversight claim based on facts like those in Francis is a claim for a breach of the duty of loyalty as described in Stone.
Agree? Disagree? Provide analyses and, if possible, relevant decisional law.
December 9, 2019 in Anne Tucker, Corporate Governance, Delaware, Joan Heminway | 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)
Monday, November 25, 2019
What if . . . . Delaware and Mrs. Pritchard
Many of us teach Francis v. United Jersey Bank, 432 A. 2d 814 (N.J. 1981), in Business Associations courses as an example of a substantive duty of care case. The case involves a deceased woman, Lillian Pritchard, who, in her lifetime, did nothing as a corporate director to curb her sons' conversions of corporate funds. The court finds she has breached her duty of care to the corporation, stating that:
Mrs. Pritchard was charged with the obligation of basic knowledge and supervision of the business of Pritchard & Baird. Under the circumstances, this obligation included reading and understanding financial statements, and making reasonable attempts at detection and prevention of the illegal conduct of other officers and directors. She had a duty to protect the clients of Pritchard & Baird against policies and practices that would result in the misappropriation of money they had entrusted to the corporation. She breached that duty.
Id. at 826. In sum:
by virtue of her office, Mrs. Pritchard had the power to prevent the losses sustained by the clients of Pritchard & Baird. With power comes responsibility. She had a duty to deter the depredation of the other insiders, her sons. She breached that duty and caused plaintiffs to sustain damages.
Id. at 829.
Francis is followed in our text by a number of additional fiduciary duty law cases, including Delaware's now infamous Smith v. Van Gorkom, 488 A.2d 858 (Del. 1985), Stone v. Ritter, 911 A.2d 362 (Del. 2006), and In re Walt Disney Derivative Litigation, 907 A 2d 693 (Del. 2005). In covering these cases and discussing them with students during office hours, I became focused on the following passage from the Disney case:
The business judgment rule . . . is a presumption that "in making a business decision the directors of a corporation acted on an informed basis, . . . and in the honest belief that the action taken was in the best interests of the company [and its shareholders]." . . . .
This presumption can be rebutted by a showing that the board violated one of its fiduciary duties in connection with the challenged transaction. In that event, the burden shifts to the director defendants to demonstrate that the challenged transaction was "entirely fair" to the corporation and its shareholders.
In re Walt Disney Co. Derivative Litigation, 907 A.2d 693, 746-47 (Del. Ch. 2005). I have some significant questions about the application of the "entire fairness" standard of review in certain types of cases. In thinking those through with some of my colleagues (including a few of my co-bloggers), I realized I was curious about the answer to a related question: How would the Francis case be pleaded, proven, and decided as a breach of duty action under Delaware law?
I have my own ideas. But before I share them, I want yours. How would you categorize/label the breach(es) of duty as a matter of Delaware law? What standard of conduct and liability would you expect a Delaware court to apply as a matter of Delaware law? And what standard of review would you expect that court to use? Leave your ideas on any or all of the foregoing in the comments, please!
November 25, 2019 in Business Associations, Delaware, Family, Family Business, Joan Heminway | Permalink | Comments (2)
Sunday, November 10, 2019
New Essay: An Overt Disclosure Requirement for Eliminating the Fiduciary Duty of Loyalty
I have a new(ish) essay that focuses on the concept of eliminating the fiduciary duty in an LLC, as permitted by Delaware law, and what that could mean for future parties. The paper can be found here (new link). When parties A and B get together to create an LLC, if they negotiate to eliminate their fiduciary agreements as to one another, I’m completely comfortable with that. They are negotiating for what they want; they are entering into that entity and operating agreement together of their own free will. So there may be differences in bargaining power—one may be wealthier than the other or have different kinds of power dynamics—but they are entering into this agreement fully aware of what the obligations are and what the options are for somebody in creating this entity.
My concern with eliminating fiduciary obligations comes down the road. That is, how do we make sure that if people are going to disclaim the fiduciary duty of loyalty, particularly, what happens if this change is made after formation? In such a case, I like to look at our traditional partnership law, which says there are certain kinds of decisions, at least absent an agreement to the contrary, that have to go to the entire group of entity participants. That is, a majority vote is not sufficient; there is essentially a minority veto.
I like the freedom of contract elimination of fiduciary duties provides, but I also am sensitive to the risks such eliminations can provide. Thus, I argue that Delaware (and other states allowing reduction or elimination of the duty of loyalty) should require an express statement about the fiduciary duties (when modified from the default) and an express statement of how those duties can be modified, whether expanding, restricting, or eliminating the duties. To protect against the predatory modification of fiduciary duties, I believe that states should include a statutory requirement that changes to fiduciary duties must be express. Here’s my proposal:
Any limited liability company agreement that provides for a modification of the default rules for what constitutes a breach of duties (including fiduciary duties) of a member, manager or other person to a limited liability company, whether to expand, restrict, or eliminate those duties, must expressly state if the modifications are intended to expand, restrict, or eliminate the duties. Any limited liability company agreement that allows the modification of fiduciary duties must state expressly how those modifications can be made and by whom. Absent such any such statement, fiduciary duties may only be modified by agreement of all the members.
Supporting freedom of contract has value, but I also think we need to account for the fact that we did not traditionally allow for the elimination of fiduciary duties. As such, we should make sure that those participating in LLCs should know both what they signed up for initially, and also if the entity has provided the opportunity for a majority to make a fundamental change to traditional duties. This balance, I think, is essential to protecting investor expectations while still allowing for entities to develop the model that best serves the members’ goals.
November 10, 2019 in Business Associations, Delaware, LLCs, Research/Scholarhip, Unincorporated Entities | Permalink | Comments (2)
Wednesday, July 24, 2019
LLCs (Still Not Corporations) Win Some, Lose Some in New Opinion
In 2010, an Illinois court reviewed Delaware business law making the following observations:
With respect to a limited liability corporation, Delaware law states that “[u]nless otherwise provided in a limited liability company agreement, the management of a limited liability company shall be vested in its members....” 6 Del.C. § 18–402. Thus, pursuant to Delaware law, directors are generally provided with authority for managing the corporation and members are generally provided with authority for managing the limited liability company. The bankruptcy court therefore properly found that a member of a LLC would be an analogous position to a director of a corporation under Delaware law.
Longview Aluminum, L.L.C. v. Brandt, 431 B.R. 193, 197 (N.D. Ill. 2010), aff'd sub nom. In re Longview Aluminum, L.L.C., 657 F.3d 507 (7th Cir. 2011).
Well, initially, it must be noted that an LLC is not a corporation at all. As the quoted Delaware law observes, it is a “limited liability company.” Corporations and LLCs are distinct entities.
I’ll also take issue with adopting the bankruptcy court’s finding “that a member of an LLC would be an analogous position to a director of a corporation under Delaware law.” I will concede that a member of an LLCmaybe an analogous position to a director of a corporation under Delaware law, but that is not inherently true.
The Longview Aluminumcourt had determined that, “under Delaware law, a corporation generally must ‘be managed by or under the direction of a board of directors . . . .’” 8 Del. Code § 141. While that’s technically accurate, it understates that general nature of Delaware directors. Note that the statue is mandatory in nature (“shall”), and then provides limited changes:
The business and affairs of every corporation organized under this chapter shall be managed by or under the direction of a board of directors, except as may be otherwise provided in this chapter or in its certificate of incorporation. If any such provision is made in the certificate of incorporation, the powers and duties conferred or imposed upon the board of directors by this chapter shall be exercised or performed to such extent and by such person or persons as shall be provided in the certificate of incorporation.
8 Del. Code § 141(a).
Remember, the Longview Aluminumcourt stated that, “[w]ith respect to a limited liability corporation, Delaware law states that ‘[u]nless otherwise provided in a limited liability company agreement, the management of a limited liability company shall be vested in its members....’ 6 Del.C. § 18–402.” Id.
But Delaware LLC law provides:
“Unless otherwise provided in a limited liability company agreement, the management of a limited liability company shall be vested in its members in proportion to the then current percentage or other interest of members in the profits of the limited liability company owned by all of the members, the decision of members owning more than 50 percent of the said percentage or other interest in the profits controlling . . . .”
6 Del. Code § 18-402.
That’s different in structure than directors. Directors act as a body, usually with one vote per director. This default provision provides for a very different structure, providing that one member with over 50% of the interests is controlling. That’s not like a board at all. And furthermore, those members in charge of the entity may not have any fiduciary duties to the LLC. The Delaware LLC Act states:
“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 . . . .” 6 Del. C. § 18-1101(c).
Corporate directors have some version of fiduciary duties. Again, a notable difference. It appears that the Longview Aluminumcourt (affirming the bankruptcy court) may have been right to extend the corporate director concept to the LLC managers in that case because of the structure of the LLC’s operating agreement. But the court went on to imply that a member of a LLC is“an analogous position to a director of a corporation under Delaware law.” That very much overstates things.
Why discuss this 2010-11 case at length now? Because this section was cited last week:
“[I]n referencing a director, Section 101(31)(B) was intended to refer to the party that “managed” the debtor corporation.” Longview Aluminum, L.L.C. v. Brandt, 431 B.R. 193, 197 (N.D. Ill. 2010) (citing 11 U.S.C. § 101(31)(B)). “With respect to a limited liability corporation, Delaware law states that ‘[u]nless otherwise provided in a limited liability company agreement, the management of a limited liability company shall be vested in its members ....” Id. (quoting 6 Del.C. § 18–402).
In re Licking River Mining, LLC, No. 14-10201, 2019 WL 2295680, at *41 (Bankr. E.D. Ky. July 19, 2019), as amended (July 19, 2019).
Fortunately, other than failing to correct the mistake of calling an LLC a corporation, the Licking River Miningseems to have gotten the outcome right. The court determined that a 25% member interest lacked control because all LLC “decisions were to be made either by a majority of the LLC interests or by the entity's managing member.”Id.Good call, and hopefully this case will clarify (and correct) any negative implications from the Longview Aluminum case. But even if it does, it gives longer life to an incorrect reference to LLCs and increases the likelihood it will be cited repeatedly.
Win some, lose some, I guess.
July 24, 2019 in Corporations, Delaware, Joshua P. Fershee, Litigation, LLCs | Permalink | Comments (0)
Tuesday, April 23, 2019
Can A Board's Knowing Violation of the Law Also Be Entirely Fair? How About Moral?
Prof. Justin Pace, Haworth College of Business, Western Michigan University recently sent me his paper, Rogue Corporations: Unlawful Corporate Conduct and Fiduciary Duty. In it, he discusses Delaware's "per se doctrine where the board directs the corporation to violate the law. A knowing violation of positive law is bad faith, which falls under the duty of loyalty. The business judgment rule will not apply and exculpation will not be available under Section 102(b)(7). The shareholders may not even need to show harm."
In the paper, he considers this concept from a moral and ethical perspective, which are interesting in their own right, though I remain more interested in the doctrine itself. The paper is worth a look. A few comments of my own, after the abstract:
On February 28, 2018, Dick’s Sporting Goods announced that it would no longer sell long guns to 18- to 20-year-olds. On March 8, 2018, Dick’s was sued for violating the Michigan Elliott-Larsen Civil Rights Act, which prohibits discrimination on the basis of age in public accommodations. Dick’s and Walmart were also sued for violating Oregon’s ban on age discrimination. In addition to corporate liability under various state civil rights acts, directors of Dick’s and Walmart face the threat of suit for breaching their fiduciary duties—suits that may be much harder to defend than the more usual breach of fiduciary duty suit.
Delaware corporation law appears to have an underappreciated per se doctrine where the board directs the corporation to violate the law. A knowing violation of positive law is bad faith, which falls under the duty of loyalty. The business judgment rule will not apply and exculpation will not be available under Section 102(b)(7). The shareholders may not even need to show harm.
This paper examines the relevant legal doctrine but also takes a step back to consider what the rule should be from an ethical and a moral standpoint. To do so, rather than apply traditional corporate governance arguments, this paper considers broader moral theories. In addition to the utilitarian calculus that is so ubiquitous in corporate governance scholarship via the law and economics movement, this paper considers the liberalism of both John Rawls and Robert Nozick. But liberalism may seem less persuasive given the rise of illiberalism politically on both the American right and left. Given that, this paper also considers two non-liberal models: one a populist modification of Charles Taylor’s democratic communitarianism and the other Catholic Social Thought.
Unsurprisingly, the proper rule depends on which moral theory is applied. If that theory is liberalism (of either form covered), then a per se approach is troubling. Harm to the corporation must be shown, and either the Delaware legislature or the corporate players, depending on the form of liberalism, must acquiesce to a per se rule. Counterintuitively, it is the per se rule that runs counter to basic democratic norms. It gives the power to litigate in response to harm not to the party harmed but to a third party. Given the divergent results from applying different moral theories, and given the democratic difficulty, the Delaware legislature should clarify the standard. It will likely find that a harsh, per se standard is unjustified.
First, I have always thought that some people read DGCL § 102(b)(7) too literally (or at least broadly). The statute reads:
(b) In addition to the matters required to be set forth in the certificate of incorporation by subsection (a) of this section, the certificate of incorporation may also contain any or all of the following matters:
. . . .
(7) A provision eliminating or limiting the personal liability of a director to the corporation or its stockholders for monetary damages for breach of fiduciary duty as a director, provided that such provision shall not eliminate or limit the liability of a director: (i) For any breach of the director's duty of loyalty to the corporation or its stockholders; (ii) for acts or omissions not in good faith or which involve intentional misconduct or a knowing violation of law; (iii) under § 174 of this title; or (iv) for any transaction from which the director derived an improper personal benefit. No such provision shall eliminate or limit the liability of a director for any act or omission occurring prior to the date when such provision becomes effective. All references in this paragraph to a director shall also be deemed to refer to such other person or persons, if any, who, pursuant to a provision of the certificate of incorporation in accordance with § 141(a)of this title, exercise or perform any of the powers or duties otherwise conferred or imposed upon the board of directors by this title.
I have never been one to believe that directors face potential liability for any type of "knowing violation of law." Anyone who has seen a UPS or FedEx truck in New York City knows that the drivers knowingly park illegally and risk tickets (which they often get) for doing the job. It is a cost of doing business, and I find it hard to believe any court would hold directors liable for such a thing, though directors certainly know (or should) of the practice. That would make for one of the most absurd Caremark-like cases ever, in my view.
Prof. Pace argues in his paper:
A per se standard might prove lucrative. It opens up liability for losses normally insulated by business judgment rule. If Nike loses market share because it made Colin Kaepernick the face of a large marketing campaign, shareholders cannot successfully sue because that decision is protected by the business judgment rule. But if Dick’s Sporting Goods loses market share because it stops selling long guns to 18- to 20-year-olds, shareholders presumably can sue and recover based on that market share, even though civil liability for violating state bars on age discrimination may be negligible.
Perhaps, but I would still think that most courts would likely work around this. First, I think a court could easily calculate damages as the modest civil liability incurred, not the lost market share. Second, in Dick's Sporting Goods situation, as I observed elsewhere, "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." If there is no harm, is there a foul? Or maybe better said, it is possible that there is no director liability unless one can show actual harm.
I will concede that DGCL § 102(b)(7) likely eliminates business judgment rule protection for directors where one can show a knowing violation of the law. However, getting past the business judgment rule does not automatically lead to liability. It simply allows the court to review the board's decision, but the plaintiff still must show harm. And I am not at all sure one can show harm in the Dick's gun sales circumstance. It is, in my view, entirely fair. I also gather that I am may be in the minority on this one. But a good conversation, either way.
April 23, 2019 in Corporations, CSR, Delaware, Joshua P. Fershee | Permalink | Comments (3)
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.
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, November 13, 2018
LLCs are Not Corporations, But That Does Not Mean LLC Diversity Rules Make Sense
Back in May, I noted my dislike of the LLC diversity jurisdiction rule, which determines an LLC's citizenship “by the citizenship of each of its members” I noted,
I still hate this rule for diversity jurisdiction of LLCs. I know I am not the first to have issues with this rule.I get the idea that diversity jurisdiction was extended to LLCs in the same way that it was for partnerships, but in today's world, it's dumb. Under traditional general partnership law, partners were all fully liable for the partnership, so it makes sense to have all partners be used to determine diversity jurisdiction. But where any partner has limited liabilty, like members do for LLCs, it seems to me the entity should be the only consideration in determing citizenship for jurisdiction purposes. It works for corporations, even where a shareholder is also a manger (or CEO), so why not have the same for LLCs. If there are individuals whose control of the entity is an issue, treat and LLC just like a corporation. Name individuals, too, if you think there is direct liability, just as you would with a corporation. For a corporation, if there is a shareholder, director, or officer (or any other invididual) who is a guarantor or is otherwise personally liable, jurisdiction arises from that potential liability.
- Util Auditors, LLC v. Honeywell Int'l Inc., No. 17 CIV. 4673 (JFK), 2018 WL 5830977, at *1 (S.D.N.Y. Nov. 7, 2018) ("Plaintiff ... is a limited liability corporation with its principal place of business in Florida, where both of its members are domiciled.").
Thermoset Corp. v. Bldg. Materials Corp. of Am., No. 17-14887, 2018 WL 5733042, at *2 (11th Cir. Oct. 31, 2018) ("Well before Thermoset filed its amended complaint, this court ruled that the citizenship of a limited liability corporation depended in turn on the citizenship of its members.").ALLENBY & ASSOCIATES, INC. v. CROWN "ST. VINCENT" LTD., No. 07-61364-CIV, 2007 WL 9710726, at *2 (S.D. Fla. Dec. 3, 2007) ("[A] limited liability corporation is a citizen of every state in which a partner resides.").
November 13, 2018 in Corporations, Delaware, Joshua P. Fershee, Litigation, LLCs | Permalink | Comments (0)
Tuesday, September 25, 2018
No Need to Be Judgmental: Last Thoughts on the Business Judgmenty Nike Ad
I was going to move on to other topics after two recent posts about Nike's Kaepernick Ad, but I decided I had a little more to say on the topic. My prior posts, Nike's Kaepernick Ad Is the Most Business Judgmenty Thing Ever and Delegation of Board Authority: Nike's Kaepernick Ad Remains the Most Business Judgmenty Thing Ever explain my view that Nike's decision to run a controversial ad is the essence of the exercise of business judgment. Some people seem to believe that by merely making a controversial decision, the board should subject to review and required to justify its actions. I don't agree. I need more.
First, I came across a case (an unreported Delaware case) that had language that was simply too good for me to pass up in this context:
The plaintiffs have pleaded no facts to undermine the presumption that the outside directors of the board . . . failed to fully inform itself in deciding how best to proceed . . . . Instead, the complaint essentially states that the plaintiffs would have run things differently. The business judgment rule, however, is not rebutted by Monday morning quarterbacking. In the absence of well pleaded allegations of director interest or self-dealing, failure to inform themselves, or lack of good faith, the business decisions of the board are not subject to challenge because in hindsight other choices might have been made instead.
Things are judgmenty. People are judgmental. At least, that’s my story, and I’m sticking to it. Plus, if I have learned anything in my 47 years, it’s that, in American English, if people say something enough, it becomes a word. That and the #OxfordComma is essential.— Joshua Fershee (@jfershee) September 25, 2018
Well, it seems like you've gotten a very small ball rolling. pic.twitter.com/yMCFkTNZ8D— Professor Bainbridge (@ProfBainbridge) September 25, 2018
So it appears.
September 25, 2018 in Corporate Governance, Corporate Personality, Corporations, Delaware, Joshua P. Fershee, Management, Sports | Permalink | Comments (2)
Tuesday, May 8, 2018
Delaware Courts Should Do Better On Entities & LLC Diversity Jurisdiction Is Wrong
If I have learned anything over the years, it is that I should not expect any court to be immune from messing up entities. Delaware, as a leader in business law and the chosen origin for so many entities, though, seems like a place that should be better than most with regard to understanding, distinguishing, and describing entities. Sometimes they get things rights, as I argued here, and other times they don't. A recent case is another place where they got something significant incorrect.
The case starts off okay:
Plaintiffs brought this action under federal diversity jurisdiction, 28 U.S.C. § 1332(a)(1), asserting that complete diversity of citizenship exists among the parties. In Defendants’ Motion to Dismiss, however, they argue that complete diversity of the parties is lacking. Federal jurisdiction under § 1332(a)(1) requires complete diversity of citizenship, meaning that “no plaintiff can be a citizen of the same state as any of the defendants.” Midlantic Nat. Bank v. Hansen, 48 F.3d 693, 696 (3d Cir. 1995); Exxon Mobil Corp. v. Allapattah Servs., Inc., 545 U.S. 546, 553 (2005).
A natural person is a citizen of “the state where he is domiciled,”1 and a corporation is a citizen of the state where it maintains its principal place of business, as well as the state where it is incorporated. Zambelli Fireworks Mfg. Co. v. Wood, 592 F.3d 412, 418 (3d Cir. 2010). For purposes of § 1332, the citizenship of a limited liability corporation2 (“LLC”) is determined “by the citizenship of each of its members.” Id. Plaintiff Cliffs Natural Resources Inc. is incorporated in Ohio, and Plaintiff CLF Pinnoak LLC is incorporated3 in Delaware and maintains its principal place of business in Ohio. Third Am. Compl. ¶¶ 3–4, ECF No. 162. In moving to dismiss this action for lack of jurisdiction, Defendants assert that Seneca Coal Resources, LLC, a Delaware corporation,4 includes members who are Ohio citizens, thus destroying complete diversity as required for § 1332.
May 8, 2018 in Corporations, Delaware, Joshua P. Fershee, LLCs | Permalink | Comments (2)
Tuesday, February 13, 2018
These Reasons Social Benefit Entities Hurt Business and Philanthropy Will Blow Your Mind
I suspect click-bait headline tactics don't work for business law topics, but I guess now we will see. This post is really just to announce that I have a new paper out in Transactions: The Tennessee Journal of Business Law related to our First Annual (I hope) Business Law Prof Blog Conference co-blogger Joan Heminway discussed here. The paper, The End of Responsible Growth and Governance?: The Risks Posed by Social Enterprise Enabling Statutes and the Demise of Director Primacy, is now available here.
To be clear, my argument is not that I don't like social enterprise. My argument is that as well-intentioned as social enterprise entity types are, they are not likely to facilitate social enterprise, and they may actually get in the way of social-enterprise goals. I have been blogging about this specifically since at least 2014 (and more generally before that), and last year I made this very argument on a much smaller scale. Anyway, I hope you'll forgive the self-promotion and give the paper a look. Here's the abstract:
Social benefit entities, such as benefit corporations and low-profit limited liability companies (or L3Cs) were designed to support and encourage socially responsible business. Unfortunately, instead of helping, the emergence of social enterprise enabling statutes and the demise of director primacy run the risk of derailing large-scale socially responsible business decisions. This could have the parallel impacts of limiting business leader creativity and risk taking. In addition to reducing socially responsible business activities, this could also serve to limit economic growth. Now that many states have alternative social enterprise entity structures, there is an increased risk that traditional entities will be viewed (by both courts and directors) as pure profit vehicles, eliminating directors’ ability to make choices with the public benefit in mind, even where the public benefit is also good for business (at least in the long term). Narrowing directors’ decision making in this way limits the options for innovation, building goodwill, and maintaining an engaged workforce, all to the detriment of employees, society, and, yes, shareholders.
The potential harm from social benefit entities and eroding director primacy is not inevitable, and the challenges are not insurmountable. This essay is designed to highlight and explain these risks with the hope that identifying and explaining the risks will help courts avoid them. This essay first discusses the role and purpose of limited liability entities and explains the foundational concept of director primacy and the risks associated with eroding that norm. Next, the essay describes the emergence of social benefit entities and describes how the mere existence of such entities can serve to further erode director primacy and limit business leader discretion, leading to lost social benefit and reduced profit making. Finally, the essay makes a recommendation about how courts can help avoid these harms.
February 13, 2018 in Business Associations, Corporate Governance, Corporate Personality, Corporations, CSR, Current Affairs, Delaware, Joshua P. Fershee, Law and Economics, Lawyering, Legislation, LLCs, Management, Research/Scholarhip, Shareholders, Social Enterprise, Unincorporated Entities | Permalink | Comments (0)
Friday, December 1, 2017
Etsy to Drop B Corp Certification
I have written about Etsy in at least three past posts: (1) Etsy becoming a certified B Corp, (2) Etsy going public, and (3) Delaware amending it's public benefit corporation laws (likely, in part, to help Etsy convert to a PBC, which Etsy would need to do to maintain its certification because it incorporated in a non-constituency statute state that does have a benefit corporation statute (Delaware)).
In May, some questioned whether Etsy would keep its social focus after a "management shakeup." In September, B Lab granted Etsy an extension on converting to a PBC. That article claims that B Lab would reset the deadline for conversion to 2019, if Etsy re-certified as a B Corp by the end of 2017 and would commit to converting to a PBC.
The 2019 date was 4 years from the 2015 Delaware PBC amendments (instead of 4 years from Etsy's first certification). One of B Lab's co-founder reportedly said that the statutory amendments were needed because the original 2013 version of the Delaware PBC law was "perfectly fine for private companies and unworkable for public companies."
Just a few days ago, however, Etsy announced that it would abandon its B Corp certification and not reincorporate as a Delaware PBC. Josh Silverman (CEO since the May shakeup) is quoted in that New York Times article as saying "Etsy’s greatest potential for impact is helping sellers — many of whom are women running small businesses — increase their sales." He sounds a lot like Milton Friedman's article The Social Responsibility of Business is to Increase its Profits. Mr. Silverman also said that Etsy "had the best of intentions, but wasn’t great at tying that [sales] to impact....Being good doesn’t cut the mustard.”
Other than the New York Times article, the press around Etsy's announcement to let its B corp certification lapse seems to be relatively light. In the short-term at least, this move probably hurts B Lab and the social enterprise community more than it hurts Etsy given how few big companies are certified. In the long-term, however, Etsy may experience significant negative consequences, as it seems that this move to drop its certification is being done in conjunction with Etsy shedding a lot of the culture that made it a beloved company.
Update: Perhaps Etsy is bracing for competition from Amazon. (Or maybe, and this is complete speculation on my part, Etsy is trying to make itself a more attractive acquisition target for Amazon, if Amazon realizes it cannot replicate Etsy on its own. Now, it is debatable whether Etsy is more valuable with or without its B Corp certification).
December 1, 2017 in Corporations, CSR, Current Affairs, Delaware, Haskell Murray, Social Enterprise | Permalink | Comments (3)
Friday, October 20, 2017
Delaware Corporate Law Resource Center (including oral histories)
The Harvard Law School Forum on Corporate Governance and Financial Regulation recently contained a notice about the Delaware Corporate Law Resource Center, which I thought might interest our readers as well. The post is reproduced below the line.
The oral histories of iconic Delaware cases are the most interesting, and useful, part of the website to me, though some of the cases do not appear to have materials yet. In addition to the cases, there is an oral history on 102(b)(7) to which my judge (VC Stephen Lamb) and others contributed. I hope the existing materials will be added to and expanded over time.
The University of Pennsylvania Law School Institute for Law and Economics (ILE) is pleased to announce the creation and public availability of a new website devoted to resources relating to the development of the Delaware General Corporation Law and related case law. This website (the Delaware Corporation Law Resource Center) has two principal components. The first is a compilation of resources relating to the Delaware General Corporation Law itself, including a link to the text of the statute, and links to the bills to amend the statute since its general revision in 1967. This portion of the website also includes links to annual commentaries on those amendments, the reports and minutes generated in the 1967 revision process, and memoranda disseminated by the Council of the Delaware State Bar Association Corporation Law Section describing some of the more significant and controversial amendments to the statute.
The second component of the website is a repository for materials constituting oral histories of iconic corporate law decisions of the Delaware courts since 1980, dealing with the director’s fiduciary duty of care, duties in takeovers, and freezeouts by controlling stockholders. This portion of the website is a work in progress, but for some of the cases it already contains the opinions in the case, briefs, selected transcripts of oral arguments, and selected key documents from the record. Most notably, the oral history compilation includes high quality videotaped interviews of lawyers and judges involved in the case, who describe the back story of the case with details not available through review of the courts’ opinions.
The oral history portion of the website also includes the first in a series of composite videos setting forth the background of each case. That premiere video describes the background of Smith v. Van Gorkom and presents, in narrative fashion, selected excerpts from the video interviews of the participants.
ILE hopes and expects that this website, which is freely available to the public, will prove to be a valuable resource for the teaching and development of Delaware corporate law. ILE welcomes suggestions for ways in which the website can be made even more useful to those interested in its subject.
The new website is available here.
October 20, 2017 in Business Associations, Corporate Governance, Corporations, Delaware, Haskell Murray, Law School, Web/Tech | Permalink | Comments (0)
Friday, October 13, 2017
Nonprofit v. Benefit Corporation v. Traditional For-Profit Hospitals
Earlier this week, my two-year old daughter was in the pediatric ICU with a virus that attacked her lungs. We spent two nights at The Monroe Carell Jr. Children's Hospital at Vanderbilt (“Vanderbilt Children’s). Thankfully, she was released Wednesday afternoon and is doing well. Unfortunately, many of the children on her floor had been in the hospital for weeks or months and were not afforded such a quick recovery. There cannot be many places more sad than the pediatric ICU.
Since returning home, I confirmed that Vanderbilt Children’s is a nonprofit organization, as I suspected. I do wonder whether the hospital would be operated the same if it were a benefit corporation or as a traditional corporation.
Some of the decisions made at the hospital seems like they would have been indefensible from a shareholder perspective, if the hospital had been for-profit. Vanderbilt Children’s has a captive market, with no serious competitors that I know of in the immediate area. Yet, the hospital doesn’t charge for parking. If they did, I don’t think it would impact anyone’s decision to choose them because, again, there aren’t really other options, and the care is the important part anyway. The food court was pretty reasonably priced, and they probably could have charged double without seriously impacting demand; the people at the hospital valued time with their children more than a few dollars. The hospital was beautifully decorated with art aimed at children – for example, with a big duck on the elevator ceiling, which my daughter absolutely loved. There were stars on the ceiling of the hospital rooms, cartoons on TVs in every room, etc. All of this presumably cost more than a drab room, and perhaps it was all donated, but assuming it actually cost more, I am not sure those things would result in any financial return on investment.
As we have discussed many times on this blog, even in the traditional for-profit setting, the business judgment rule likely protects the decisions of the board of directors, even if the promised ROI seems poor. But at what point – especially when the board knows there will be no return on the investment at all - is it waste? (Note: Question sparked by a discussion that Stefan Padfied, Josh Fershee, and I had in Knoxville after a session at the UTK business law conference this year). And, in any event, the Dodge and eBay cases may lead to some doubt in the way a case may play out. And even if the law is highly unlikely to enforce shareholder wealth maximization, the norm in traditional for-profit corporations may lead to directorial decisions that we find problematic as a society, especially in a hospital setting.
Now, maybe the Hippocratic Oath, community expectations, and various regulations make it so nonprofit and forprofit hospitals operate similarly. As a father of a patient, however, even as a free market inclined professor, I would prefer hospitals to be nonprofit and clearly focused on care first. Also, some forprofit hospitals are supposedly considering going the benefit corporation route, which may be a step in the right direction – at least they have an obligation to consider various stakeholders (even if, currently, the statutory enforcement mechanisms are extremely weak) and at least there are some reporting requirements (even if , currently, reporting compliance is miserable low in the states I have examined and the statutory language is painfully vague).
I am not sure I have ever been in a situation where I would have paid everything I had, and had no other good options for the immediate need, and yet I still did not feel taken advantage of by the organization. There is much more that could be said on these issues, but I do wonder whether organizational form was important here. And, if so, what is the solution? Require hospitals to be nonprofits (or at least benefit corporations, if those statutes were amended to add more teeth)?
October 13, 2017 in Business Associations, Corporate Governance, Corporations, CSR, Delaware, Ethics, Family, Haskell Murray, Social Enterprise | Permalink | Comments (7)
Wednesday, October 4, 2017
Revising How to Handle Derivative Claims (or Not)
Yesterday, Professor Bainbridge posted "Is there a case for abolishing derivative litigation? He makes the case as follows:
A radical solution would be elimination of derivative litigation. For lawyers, the idea of a wrong without a legal remedy is so counter-intuitive that it scarcely can be contemplated. Yet, derivative litigation appears to have little if any beneficial accountability effects. On the other side of the equation, derivative litigation is a high cost constraint and infringement upon the board’s authority. If making corporate law consists mainly of balancing the competing claims of accountability and authority, the balance arguably tips against derivative litigation. Note, moreover, that eliminating derivative litigation does not eliminate director accountability. Directors would remain subject to various forms of market discipline, including the important markets for corporate control and employment, proxy contests, and shareholder litigation where the challenged misconduct gives rise to a direct cause of action.
If eliminating derivative litigation seems too extreme, why not allow firms to opt out of the derivative suit process by charter amendment? Virtually all states now allow corporations to adopt charter provisions limiting director and officer liability. If corporate law consists of a set of default rules the parties generally should be free to amend, as we claim, there seems little reason not to expand the liability limitation statutes to allow corporations to opt out of derivative litigation.
I think he makes a good point. And included in the market discipline and other measures that Bainbridge notes would remain in place to maintain director accountability, there would be the shareholder response to the market. That is, if shareholders value derivative litigation as an option ex ante, the entity can choose to include derivative litigation at the outset or to add it later if the directors determine the lack of a derivative suit option is impacting the entity's value.
Professor Bainbridge's post also reminded me of another option: arbitrating derivative suits. A friend of mine made just such a proposal several years ago while we were in law school:
There are a number of factors that make the arbitration of derivative suits desirable. First, the costs of an arbitration proceeding are usually lower than that of a judicial proceeding, due to the reduced discovery costs. By alleviating some of the concern that any D & O insurance coverage will be eaten-up by litigation costs, a corporation should have incentive to defend “frivolous” or “marginal” derivative claims more aggressively. Second, and directly related to litigation costs, attorneys' fees should be cut significantly via the use of arbitration, thus preserving a larger part of any pecuniary award that the corporation is awarded. Third, the reduced incentive of corporations to settle should discourage the initiation of “frivolous” or “marginal” derivative suits.
Andrew J. Sockol, A Natural Evolution: Compulsory Arbitration of Shareholder Derivative Suits in Publicly Traded Corporations, 77 Tul. L. Rev. 1095, 1114 (2003) (footnote omitted).
Given the usually modest benefit of derivative suits, early settlement of meritorious suits, and the ever-present risk of strike suits, these alternatives are well worth considering.
October 4, 2017 in ADR, Corporate Finance, Corporate Governance, Corporations, Delaware, Financial Markets, Joshua P. Fershee, Litigation, Securities Regulation | Permalink | Comments (3)