Friday, May 24, 2019
Currently, I am working on a project that looks at how social value is measured and reported. As I dig deeper, I am becoming even more convinced that measuring social value may be too difficult for us to do well.
Let’s take scooters as an example. How would you measure (and report) the social value of these scooter companies? How many points should a “third-party standard” assign for the jobs created, for the gasoline saved, for the affordable transportation provided, for the fun produced? How many points should you subtract for a death, for injuries, for obstructing sidewalks? In the language of the Model Benefit Corporation Legislation, how do you know if a scooter company is producing “[a] material positive impact on society and the environment, taken as a whole”?
Over the past few weeks, I’ve been diving into the B Impact Assessment, (which is the top third-party standard used by benefit corporations) and, frankly, the points assigned seem somewhat arbitrary and easy for companies to manipulate. In my opinion, almost any company, including a scooter company, could get the 80+ points needed to qualify as a certified B corp. if they learned and worked the system a bit (and, as most readers know, you don’t even have to be certified to become a benefit corporation under the state statutes.)
I know bright people who would emphatically argue that scooter companies create a “material positive impact,” and I know bright people who think scooter companies are socially destructive. Social reporting does not have to be totally useless; it would be interesting to have the data on scooter usage (how many people are using them for their commute, what is the injury rate relative to cars, etc?). But the total amount of social value is not easily reduced to numbers and social reports. Given the nuance of each decision, the various externalities, and the difficulty in quantifying the social impact, I have previously suggested giving stakeholder representatives certain governance rights (such as the ability to elect and sue the board of directors). This way, directors will be more likely to consider each stakeholder group when making decisions.
Tuesday, January 29, 2019
Back in 2011, I wrote, in a Harvard Business Law Review Online article, that the default rule in analyzing all LLC questions should be one taken from CML V, LLC v. Bax, 6 A.3d 238 (Del. Ch. Nov. 3, 2010): “[T]here is nothing absurd about different legal principles applying to corporations and LLCs.” I still believe that. I further argued:
Where legislatures have decided that distinctly corporate concepts should apply to LLCs—such as allowing piercing the veil or derivative lawsuits—those wishes (obviously) should be honored by the courts. And where state LLC laws are silent, the court should carefully consider the legislative context and history, as well as the policy implications of the possible answers to the questions presented. Courts should put forth cogent reasons for their decisions, rather than blindly applying corporate law principles in what are seemingly analogous situations between LLCs and corporations. [footnotes omitted]
In 2014, I discussed a case West Virginia case in a post here at Business Law Prof Blog, More LLC Veil Piercing Forced into State Statutes. In that post, I was critical of a West Virginia Supreme Court of Appeals decision reading veil piercing into the state's LLC statute. My main issue with that case, Kubican v. The Tavern, LLC, 232 W.Va. 268, 752 S.E. 2d 299 (2013), was that" Virginia’s veil-piercing test stated more clearly than other states . . . that corporate formalities are the main issue for the unity of interest test" for veil piercing an LLC. This is problematic because, of course, LLCs don't have many formalities, and none of them are "corporate" (because LLCs are not corporations).
To be fair, the opinion wisely directed that, for LLC veil piercing, courts “disregard of formalities requirement.” But the overlay of corporate formalities and corporate traditions remain in the numerous other factors courts are to consider, and thus analysis of the factors are likely to occur with through a decidedly corporate filter. That's not reasonable or fair for LLCs.
The West Virginia legislature is looking to remedy this, and overrule the Supreme Court of Appeals, has proposed Senate Bill 258:
ARTICLE 3. RELATIONS OF MEMBERS AND MANAGERS TO PERSONS DEALING WITH LIMITED LIABILITY COMPANY.
§31B-3-303. Liability of members and managers.
(a) Except as otherwise provided in §31B-3-303(c) of this code, the debts, obligations, and liabilities of a limited liability company, whether arising in contract, tort, or otherwise, are solely the debts, obligations, and liabilities of the company. A member or manager is not personally liable for a debt, obligation, or liability of the company
solelyby reason of being or acting as a member or manager. It is the intent and policy of the Legislature that for any claim against a limited liability company arising after the effective date of the reenactment of this section during the regular session of the Legislature, 2019, common law corporate “veil piercing” claims may not be used to impose personal liability on a member or manager of a limited liability company, and that the West Virginia Supreme Court of Appeals decision in Joseph Kubican v. The Tavern, LLC, 232 W.Va. 268, 752 S.E. 2d 299 (2013) be nullified.
(b) The failure of a limited liability company to observe the usual company formalities or requirements relating to the exercise of its company powers or management of its business is not a ground for imposing personal liability on the members or managers for liabilities of the company.
(c) All or specified members of a limited liability company are liable in their capacity as members for all or specified debts, obligations, or liabilities of the company if:
(1) A provision to that effect is contained in the articles of organization; and
(2) A member so liable has consented in writing to the adoption of the provision or to be bound by the provision.
As noted above, I have supported legislative action to allow or disallow LLC veil piercing. Where LLC veil piercing is to be allowed, I have advocated for a clearly stated LLC-specific test. And were veil piercing to be eliminated, I have advocated for legislation making that clear, too. This proposal has this last option right.
That said, I have a couple significant objections to the proposed statute, as written. First, and most significant, the statute could be read to eliminate the possibility of personal liability for any company debt for any member of an LLC. The proposed legislation seeks to modify the following: "A member or manager is not personally liable for a debt, obligation, or liability of the company
solely by reason of being or acting as a member or manager." By dropping "solely," this proposal appears to limit other potential sources of liability (that are not veil piercing), which are traditionally considered liability related to the actions or a member. By analogy, the Model Business Corporation Act provides, "(b) A shareholder of a corporation is not personally liable for any liabilities of the corporation (including liabilities arising from acts of the corporation) except (i) to the extent provided in a provision of the articles of incorporation permitted by section 2.02(b)(2)(v), and (ii) that a shareholder may become personally liable by reason of the shareholder’s own acts or conduct." § 6.22 Liability of Shareholders (emphasis added).
Where an individual LLC member acts in a way that should lead to liability (promises to pay individually, seek to deceive, etc.), the possibility for direct liability to the member is proper and is generally recognized by even the most ardent advocates of abolishing veil piercing. For example, the most prominent scholar on this front, Prof. Bainbridge, in his article, Abolishing LLC Veil Piercing, "advocates a regime of direct liability: Did the defendant-members do anything for which they are appropriately held personally liable?" I concur.
[Author's note: the proposed statute was amended today adding "solely" back into the statute. That amendment occured after I wrote this, but before it posted, so someone else was on it.]
It is the intent and policy of the Legislature that for any claim against a limited liability company arising after the effective date of the reenactment of this section during the regular session of the Legislature, 2019, common law corporate “veil piercing” claims may not be used to impose personal liability on a member or manager of a limited liability company, and that the West Virginia Supreme Court of Appeals decision in Joseph Kubican v. The Tavern, LLC, 232 W.Va. 268, 752 S.E. 2d 299 (2013) be nullified.
This is problematic because it applies to all prior negotiated relationships, meaning that contracts would have been negotiated with veil piercing available. This may, in some way, impacted how people negotiated guarantees in contracts. In a prior post, I criticized the Wyoming high court for making LLC veil piercing easy and suggesting that laws should not encourage parties to seek guarantees:
The court cites potential abuse of LLC laws if they were to adopt such a rule that motivates companies to ask for guarantees. instead adopting a rule that could incentivize companies like Western actively avoid ask ingfor guarantees. Why? Because if you ask for a guarantee and are refused, it could be used against you later. But if you don’t ask, you may get to piece the veil and seek a windfall recovery by getting a post hoc guarantee that was not available via negotiation.
This West Virginia proposed legislation would likely lead more parties to seek guarantees, which I see as a good thing. But this is a significant change to the legal landscape, and it seems to me the whole thing should be prospective. Thus, new interactions, new contracts or renewals, etc., should be under the new law, but that there should be at least some look-back period. One could argue that a "claim against a limited liability company arising after the effective date" related to a 2014 contract is a claim that "arose" before the effective date because a "claim" is different from a "lawsuit." For me, I would probably amend it to say something like, for events leading to a lawsuit against a limited liability company arising after the effective date . . . .." This would have the added benefit of preserving claims for events preceding the effective date that were not filed or discovered but are still within the statute of limitations. This seems more equitable to me.
Anyway, I am intrigued by the concept of eliminating LLC veil piercing, but I think this needs more thought.
[Author's note 2: The amended language mentioned above added substantial changes to part (c), which I am inserting below.]
An additional amendment now adjusts part (c) t0 read (my comments inserted in bold):
(c) All or specified members of a limited liability company are liable in their capacity as members for all or specified debts, obligations or liabilities of the company if:
(1) A provision to that effect is contained in the articles of organization; and
(2) A member so liable has consented in writing to the adoption of the provision or to be bound by the provision.
(1) A provision to that effect is contained in the articles of organization, and a member so liable has consented in writing to the adoption of the provision or to be bound by the provision; [This is currently item 12 of the West Virginia Secretary of State Articles of Organization of Limited Liability form.]
(2) The member against whom liability is asserted has personally guaranteed the liability or obligation of the limited liability company in writing; [Good to make this clear, I suppose, though that is a personal obligation that attaches to the indidvudal. This is less necessary with "solely" added back to part (a).]
(3) As to a tax liability of the limited liability company, the law of the state or of the United States imposes liability upon the member; or [Also a personal obligation that attaches to the indidvudal.]
(4) The member commits actual fraud which causes injury to an individual or entity. [True before this law was proposed as a personal obligation that attaches to the indidvudal. The potential problem with this list of items 1-4 is that it may serve to limit or eliminate other forms of personal liablity that existed under prior law. Hopefully, the "solely" langauge keeps all direct liability intact, but sometimes when a list like this is created, it is also read to mean it is the exclusive list of direct liability available.]
(d) Enterprise liability. — In circumstances where the members of a limited liability company are, in whole or in part, corporations, limited liability companies, or other entities which are not human beings, then if a jury shall determine that the liability of a limited liability company sounding in tort arose as part of the activities of a joint enterprise, those entities which are part of the joint enterprise with the limited liability company may be liable for the liability of the limited liability company which arose as part of the business operations of the joint enterprise, not as a piercing of the veil, but instead under the doctrine of joint enterprise liability. [This is an attempt at preserving the concept of enterprise liability as introduced in Walkovsky v. Carlson. I rather like the idea, but I think this language could be more clear. I hope to have time to draft proposed changes soon.]
(e) Member as tortfeasor. — Nothing in this section shall immunize or shield a member of a limited liability company, solely because he or she is a member of a limited liability company, from liability for his or her own tortious conduct that proximately causes injury to another party while the member is acting on behalf of the limited liability company. In such circumstance, the liability of a member is not through veil piercing, but rather primary, as against any tortfeasor. [I like this and think it is critical to make clear. It does run the risk of including things I don't think it always should, such as providing indivdual liablity for a company's business tort claims, such as a toritious interference with contract.]
(f) Clawback authority. — If a member is proved to have committed any of the following acts, then a creditor of the limited liability company whose judgment the limited liability company cannot satisfy may seek clawback from the member under this subsection: Provided, That the limited liability company’s judgment creditor may proceed in the shoes of the limited liability company [like a derivative suit?] to clawback funds from the member in order to reimburse the limited liability company for either the amount of the judgment against the limited liability company or the amount transferred from the limited liability company to the member in bad faith, whichever is less. [This may work for a business that is on going, but lacks funds for a particular creditor. However, where the LLC is in the zone of insolvency, it could be used to prioritize one creditor over another, possibly improperly. That is, it appears this intends for the clawback funds to go to the creditor. Once the funds come back to the LLC, though, it seems to me those funds should still need to be disbursed properly in consideration of all creditors with outstanding claims.]
The wrongful acts which will justify clawback (but not veil piercing) are:
(1) Conflicted exchange;
(2) Insolvency distribution; or
(3) Siphoning of funds.
(g) Definitions. — As used in this section:
“Conflicted exchange” means a transfer of money or other property from a limited liability company to a member of the limited liability company (or to any other organization in which the member has a material financial interest) in exchange for services, goods, or other tangible or intangible property of less than reasonable equivalent value.
“Insolvency distribution” means a transfer of money or other property from a limited liability company to a member of that limited liability company (or to any other organization in which the member has a material financial interest), in respect of the member’s ownership interest, that renders the limited liability company insolvent.
“Insolvent” means, with respect to a limited liability company, that the limited liability company is unable to pay its debts in the ordinary course of business. Claims that are unusual in nature or amount, including tort claims in claims for consequential damages, are not to be considered claims in the ordinary course of business for the purposes of this section.
“Siphoning of funds” means whether the manager or majority member has siphoned funds from the limited liability company in violation of the articles of organization, the operating agreement, or this article. [I would have hoped that all avenues to recover for improper distributions would remain. I am okay with listing them, as long as none are excluded by creation of the list.]
That's all for now. This is a pretty big proposal, and it won't surprise me if it passes. If they are committed to it, I sure hope they take the time to get it right.
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)
Tuesday, August 21, 2018
Senator Elizabeth Warren last week released her Accountable Capitalism Act. My co-blogger Haskell Murray wrote about that here, as have a number of others, including Professor Bainbridge, who has written at least seven posts on his blog. Countless others have weighed in, as well.
There are fans of the idea, others who are agnostic, and still other who thinks it’s a terrible idea. I am not taking a position on any of that, because I am too busy working through all the flaws with regard to entity law itself to even think about the overall Act.
As a critic of how most people view entities, my expectations were low. On the plus side, the bill does not say “limited liability corporation” one time. So that’s a win. Still, there are a number of entity law flaws that make the bill problematic before you even get to what it’s supposed to do. The problem: the bill uses “corporation” too often where it means “entity” or “business.”
Let’s start with the Section 2. DEFINITIONS. This section provides:
(2) LARGE ENTITY.—
(A) IN GENERAL.—The term ‘‘large entity’’ means an entity that—
(i) is organized under the laws of a State as a corporation, body corporate, body politic, joint stock company, or limited liability company;
(ii) engages in interstate commerce; and
(iii) in a taxable year, according to in- formation provided by the entity to the Internal Revenue Service, has more than $1,000,000,000 in gross receipts.
Okay, so it does list LLCs, correctly, but it does not list partnerships. This would seem to exclude Master Limited Partnerships (MLPs). The Alerian MLP Indexlist about 40 MLPs with at least a $1 billion market cap. It also leaves our publicly traded partnerships(PTPs). So, that’s a miss, to say the least.
Section 2 goes on to define a
(6) UNITED STATES CORPORATION.—The term “United States corporation’’ means a large entity with respect to which the Office has granted a charter under section 3.
The bill also creates an “Office of United States Corporations,” in Section 3, even though the definitions section clear says a “large entity” includes more than just corporations.
Next is Section 4, which provides the “Requirement for Large Entities to Obtain Charters.”
(1) IN GENERAL.— An entity that is organized as a corporation, body corporate, body politic, joint stock company, or limited liability company in a State shall obtain a charter from the Office . . . .”
So, again, the definition does not include MLPs (or any other partnership forms, or coops for that matter) as large entities. I am not at all clear why the Act would refer to and define “Large Entities,” then go back to using “corporations.” Odd.
Later in section 4, we get the repercussions for the failure to obtain a charter:
An entity to which paragraph (1) applies and that fails to obtain a charter from the Office as required under that paragraph shall not be treated as a corporation, body corporate, body politic, joint-stock company, or limited liability company, as applicable, for the purposes of Federal law during the period beginning on the date on which the entity is required to obtain a charter under that paragraph and ending on the date on which the entity obtains the charter.
Here, the section chooses not to use the large entity definition or the corporation definition and instead repeats the entity list from the definitions section. As a side note, does this section mean that, for “purposes of Federal law,” any statutory “large entity” without a charter is a general partnership or sole proprietorship? I would hope not for the LLC, which isn’t a corporation, anyway.
Finally, in Section 5, the Act provides:
(1) RULE OF CONSTRUCTION REGARDING GENERAL CORPORATE LAW.—Nothing in this section may be construed to affect any provision of law that is applicable to a corporation, body corporate, body politic, joint stock company, or limited liability company, as applicable, that is not a United States corporation.
Again, I will note that “general corporate law” should not apply to anything but corporations, anyway. LLCs, in particular.
The Act further contemplates a standard of conduct for directors and officers. LLCs do not have to have either, at least not in the way corporations do, nor do MLPs/PTPs, which admittedly do not appear covered, anyway. The Act also contemplates shareholders and shareholder suits, which are not a thing for LLCs/MLPs/PTPs because they don’t have shareholders.
This is not an exhaustive list, but I think it’s a pretty good start. I will concede that some of my critiques could be argued another way. Obviously, I'd disagree, but maybe some of this is not as egregious as I see it. Still, there are flaws, and if this thing is going to move beyond even the release, I sure hope they take the time to get the entity issues figured out. I’d be happy to help.
August 21, 2018 in Corporate Governance, Corporate Personality, Corporations, CSR, Joshua P. Fershee, Legislation, LLCs, Management, Partnership, Shareholders, Unincorporated Entities | Permalink | Comments (0)
Sunday, August 12, 2018
We’re a month away from our second annual Business Law Professor Blog CLE, hosted at the University of Tennessee on Friday, September 14, 2018. We’ll discuss our latest research and receive comments from UT faculty and students. I’ve entitled my talk Beyond Bitcoin: Leveraging Blockchain for Corporate Governance, Corporate Social Responsibility, and Enterprise Risk Management, and will blog more about that after I finish the article. This is a really long post, but it’s chock full of helpful links for novices and experts alike and highlights some really interesting work from our colleagues at other law schools.
Two weeks ago, I posted some resources to help familiarize you with blockchain. Here’s a relatively simple definition from John Giordani at Forbes:
Blockchain is a public register in which transactions between two users belonging to the same network are stored in a secure, verifiable and permanent way. The data relating to the exchanges are saved inside cryptographic blocks, connected in a hierarchical manner to each other. This creates an endless chain of data blocks -- hence the name blockchain -- that allows you to trace and verify all the transactions you have ever made. The primary function of a blockchain is, therefore, to certify transactions between people. In the case of Bitcoin, the blockchain serves to verify the exchange of cryptocurrency between two users, but it is only one of the many possible uses of this technological structure. In other sectors, the blockchain can certify the exchange of shares and stocks, operate as if it were a notary and "validate" a contract or make the votes cast in online voting secure and impossible to alter. One of the greatest advantages of the blockchain is the high degree of security it guarantees. In fact, once a transaction is certified and saved within one of the chain blocks, it can no longer be modified or tampered with. Each block consists of a pointer that connects it to the previous block, a timestamp that certifies the time at which the event actually took place and the transaction data.
These three elements ensure that each element of the blockchain is unique and immutable -- any request to modify the timestamp or the content of the block would change all subsequent blocks. This is because the pointer is created based on the data in the previous block, triggering a real chain reaction. In order for any alterations to happen, it would be necessary for the 50%-plus-one of the network to approve the change: a possible but hardly feasible operation since the blockchain is distributed worldwide between millions of users.
In case that wasn’t clear enough, here are links to a few of my favorite videos for novices. These will help you understand the rest of this blog post.
- Blockchain Expert Explains One Concept in 5 Levels of Difficulty
- 19 Industries That Blockchain Will Disrupt
- How Blockchain is Changing Money and Business
To help prepare for my own talk in Tennessee, I attended a fascinating discussion at SEALS on Thursday moderated by Dean Jon Garon of Nova Southeastern University Shepard Broad College of Law called Blockchain Technology and the Law.
For those of you who don’t know how blockchain technology can relate to your practice or teaching, I thought I would provide a few questions raised by some of the speakers. I’ve inserted some (oversimplified)links for definitions. The speakers did not include these links, so if I have used one that you believe is incomplete or inaccurate, do not attribute it to them.
Del started the session by talking about the legal issues in blockchain consensus models. He described consensus models as the backbones for users because they: 1) allow users to interact with each other in a trustless manner; 2) ensure the integrity of the ledger in both normal and adversarial situations; and 3) create a “novel variety of networks with extraordinary potential” if implemented correctly. He discussed both permissioned (e.g. Ripple) and permissionless (Bitcoin) systems and how they differ. He then explained Proof of Work blockchains supported by miners (who solve problems to add blocks to the blockchain) and masternodes (who provide the backbone support to the blockchain). He pointed out how blockchains can reduce agency costs and problems of asymmetrical information and then focused on their utility in financial markets, securities regulation, and corporate governance. Del compared the issues related to off-chain governance, where decisionmaking first takes place on a social level and is then actively encoded into the protocol by the developers (used by Bitcoin and Ethereum) to on-chain governance, where developers broadcast their improvement protocols on-chain and then, once approved, those improvements are implemented into the code. He closed by listing a number of “big unanswered issues” related to regulatory guidance, liability for the performance of the technology and choice of consensus, global issues, and GDPR and other data privacy issues.
Catherine wants to help judges think about smart contracts. She asked, among other things, how judges should address remedies, what counts as substantial performance, and how smart contract audits would work. She questioned whether judges should use a consumer protection approach or instead follow a draconian approach by embracing automation and enforcing smart contracts as drafted to discourage their adoption by those who are not sophisticated enough to understand how they work.
Tonya focuses on blockchain and intellectual property. Her talked raised the issues of non-fungible tokens generated through smart contracts and the internet of value. She used the example of cryptokitties, where players have the chance to collect and breed digital cats. She also raised the question of what kind of technology can avoid infringement. For more on how blockchain can disrupt copyright law, read her post here.
In case you didn’t have enough trust issues with blockchain and cryptocurrency, Rebecca’s presentation focused on the “halo of immutability” and asked a few central questions: 1) why should we trust the miners not to collude for a 51% attack 2) why should we trust wallets, which aren’t as secure as people think; and 3) why should we trust the consensus mechanism? In response, some members of the audience noted that blockchain appeals to a libertarian element because of the removal of the government from the conversation.
Professor Carla Reyes, Michigan State University College of Law- follow her on Twitter at Carla Reyes (@Prof_CarlaReyes);
Carla talked about crypto corporate governance and the potential fiduciary duties that come out of thinking of blockchains as public trusts or corporations. She explained that governance happens on and off of the blockchain mechanisms through social media outlets such as Redditt. She further noted that many of those who call themselves “passive economic participants” are actually involved in governance because they comment on improvement processes. She also noted the paradox that off chain governance doesn’t always work very well because participants don’t always agree, but when they do agree, it often leads to controversial results like hard forks. Her upcoming article will outline potential fiduciaries (miner and masternode operators for example), their duties, and when they apply. She also asked the provocative question of whether a hard fork is like a Revlon event.
As a former chief privacy officer, I have to confess a bias toward Charlotte’s presentation. She talked about blockchain in healthcare focusing on these questions: will gains in cybersecurity protection outweigh specific issues for privacy or other legal issues (data ownership); what are the practical implications of implementing a private blockchain (consortium, patient-initiated, regulatory-approved); can this apply to other needed uses, including medical device applications; how might this technology work over geographically diverse regulatory structures; and are there better applications for this technology (e.g. connected health devices)? She posited that blockchain could work in healthcare because it is decentralized, has increased security, improves access controls, is more impervious to unauthorized change, could support availability goals for ransomware attacks and other issues, is potentially interoperable, could be less expensive, and could be controlled by regulatory branch, consortium, and the patient. She closed by raising potential legal issues related to broad data sharing, unanswered questions about private implementations, privacy requirements relating to the obligation of data deletion and correction (GDPR in the EU, China’s cybersecurity law, etc); and questions of data ownership in a contract.
Eric closed by discussing the potential tax issue for hard forks. He explained that after a hard fork, a new coin is created, and asked whether that creates income because the owner had one entitlement and now has two pieces of ownership. He then asked whether hard forks are more like corporate reorganizations or spinoffs (which already have statutory taxation provisions) or rather analogous to a change of wealth. Finally, he asked whether we should think about these transactions like a contingent right to do something in the future and how that should be valued.
Stay tuned for more on these and other projects related to blockchain. I will be sure to post them when they are done. But, ignore blockchain at your peril. There’s a reason that IBM, Microsoft, and the State Department are spending money on this technology. If you come to UT on September 15th, I’ll explain how other companies, the UN, NASDAQ, and nation states are using blockchain beyond the cryptocurrency arena.
August 12, 2018 in Commercial Law, Compliance, Conferences, Contracts, Corporate Governance, Corporations, Current Affairs, Entrepreneurship, Human Rights, Law School, Lawyering, Legislation, Marcia Narine Weldon, Research/Scholarhip, Securities Regulation, Shareholders, Teaching, Technology, Writing | Permalink | Comments (0)
Tuesday, July 10, 2018
I am both a business law professor and an energy law professor, which is sometimes surprising to people. That is, some folks are surprised that have a research focus in two areas that are seemingly very distinct. In one sense, that's true, at least in the academic realm. Most energy law scholars tend to have a focus on more close related disciplines, such as environmental law, administrative law, and property law. And business law scholars tend to trend toward things like commercial law, bankruptcy, tax, and contracts.
There is substantial overlap, though, in the energy and business law spaces, as I have noted on this blog before. I am even working on some research that looks specifically at the role laws and regulations have on business and economic development. My work with the WVU Center for Innovation in Gas Research and Utilization builds on this energy and business nexus.
I am pleased to share a newly published article I wrote with Amy Stein from the University of Florida's Levin College of Law. The piece is called Decarbonizing Light-Duty Vehicles, and it appears in the July issue of Environmental Law Reporter. It is available here. This article is based on our forthcoming book chapter that will appear in Legal Pathways to Deep Decarbonization in the United States (Michael B. Gerrard & John C. Dernbach eds.) and published by the Environmental Law Institute. The book expands on the U.S. work of the Deep Decarbonization Pathways Project, and was prepared in collaboration with that organization. Following is an excerpt that gives a sense of how energy and business law and policy sometimes intersect.
A last challenge surrounds the existing business models that revolve around the [internal combustion vehicle (ICV)]. First, a number of states have a strong incentive to maintain a core of ICVs due to their heavy reliance on the gasoline tax to fund highway infrastructure in their respective states. The gasoline tax has been in place since 1956 to help pay for construction of the interstate highway system. Since that time, Congress has directed the majority of the revenues from this tax to the Highway Trust Fund (HTF). At the federal level, Congress has not increased the tax in more than 20 years, leaving it at 18.4 cents a gallon. As of July 2015, state taxes on gasoline averaged 26.49 cents a gallon, bringing the total tax on gasoline to about 45 cents per gallon. All efforts to reduce reliance on gas-dependent vehicles therefore stand in sharp contrast to efforts to maintain a healthy highway fund. The interplay between fuel economy and the dependence on gasoline tax revenues should not be overlooked, as well as the conflicting demands placed on legislators.
Second, dealers, mechanics, and gas stations have a strong incentive to maintain the dominance of ICVs. Dealers may not be as familiar with [alternative fuel vehicles (AFVs)] and so are less likely to be able to demonstrate specifics about available incentives, nor be able to exude confidence about charging, range, and battery life-span. More importantly, dealers may also be hesitant to sell AFVs for some of the same reasons that customers may be inclined to purchase them—specifically, the expectation of reduced maintenance costs. These misaligned incentives exist because an essential part of a dealer’s business model relies on post-sale revenues related to the sale of used cars, oil changes, and engine maintenance repairs, avoided costs for AFV owners. More car dealers may need to explore options that evolve with the technology, including maintaining and repairing fleets of autonomous vehicles.
In short, although the United States has begun the transition to AFVs, there are a number of obstacles, financial, psychological, and cultural, that stand in the way of a greater shift to AFVs.
Amy L. Stein & Joshua Fershée, Decarbonizing Light-Duty Vehicles, 48 Environmental Law Reporter 10596 (2018) (footnotes omitted).
Tuesday, April 10, 2018
I often use my space here to complain about courts and lawmakers being imprecise with regard to limited liability companies (LLCs). Today, I will focus on my home state of West Virginia, which recently passed a bill to support (and provide loans for cooperatives designed to provide) much-needed broadband development in the state. I applaud the effort, but the execution was not great.
Here's an example from the West Virginia Code:
12-6C-11. Legislative findings; loans for industrial development; availability of funds and interest rates.
. . . .
(f) The directors of the board shall bear no fiduciary responsibility with regard to any of the loans contemplated in this section.
This applies to a cooperative board that takes on loans for broadband projects. But it doesn't make sense. I think they used "fiduciary" when they meant "financial," as I assume they meant to say that the board members of the organization would not have “financial liability.” I am pretty sure they did not mean to remove fiduciary duties. Then again, who knows. Maybe they are fine with the directors using loans for personal vacations. (Just kidding. I am pretty sure they'd care.) I know that in finance, the term fiduciary can be used to describe money (meaning some that that relies on public trust for value), but that does not make sense here, either.
When the legislature returns for the next session, I plan to see if I can get this amended to track the LLC liability defaults. Maybe something like:
"(f) The directors of the board are not personally liable for any of the loans contemplated in this section."
I won't hold my breath, but it's worth a try.
Friday, April 6, 2018
Within the next few weeks, the Supreme Court will decide a trio of cases about class action waivers, which I wrote about here. The Court will decide whether these waivers in mandatory arbitration agreements violate the National Labor Relations Act (which also applies in the nonunion context) or are permissible under the Federal Arbitration Act.
I wonder if the Supreme Court clerks helping to draft the Court's opinion(s) are reading today's report by the Economic Policy Institute about the growing use of mandatory arbitration. The author of the report reviewed survey responses from 627 private sector employers with 50 employees or more. The report explained that over fifty-six percent of private sector, nonunion employees or sixty million Americans must go to arbitration to address their workplace rights. Sixty-five percent of employers with more than one thousand employees use arbitration provisions. One-third of employers that require mandatory arbitration include the kind of class action waivers that the Court is looking at now. Significantly, women, low-wage workers, and African-Americans are more likely to work for employers that require arbitration. Businesses in Texas, North Carolina, and California (a pro-worker state) are especially fond of the provisions. In most of the highly populated states, over forty percent of the employers have mandatory arbitration policies.
Employers overwhelmingly win in arbitration, and the report proves that the proliferation of these provisions has significantly reduced the number of employment law claims filed. According to the author:
The number of claims being filed in employment arbitration has increased in recent years. In an earlier study, Colvin and Gough (2015) found an average of 940 mandatory employment arbitration cases per year being filed between 2003 and 2013 with the American Arbitration Association (AAA), the nation’s largest employment arbitration service provider. By 2016, the annual number of employment arbitration case filings with the AAA had increased to 2,879 (Estlund 2018). Other research indicates that about 50 percent of mandatory employment arbitration cases are administered by the AAA (Stone and Colvin 2015). This means that there are still only about 5,758 mandatory employment arbitration cases filed per year nationally. Given the finding that 60.1 million American workers are now subject to these procedures, this means that only 1 in 10,400 employees subject to these procedures actually files a claim under them each year. Professor Cynthia Estlund of New York University Law School has compared these claim filing rates to employment case filing rates in the federal and state courts. She estimates that if employees covered by mandatory arbitration were filing claims at the same rate as in court, there would be between 206,000 and 468,000 claims filed annually, i.e., 35 to 80 times the rate we currently observe (Estlund 2018). These findings indicate that employers adopting mandatory employment arbitration have been successful in coming up with a mechanism that effectively reduces their chance of being subject to any liability for employment law violations to very low levels.
This data makes the Court's upcoming ruling even more critical for American workers- many of whom remain unaware that they are even subject to these provisions.
Tuesday, February 27, 2018
Another unforced error on the LLC front, again with a limited liability company being called a corporation.
This time, it is a recent Texas appellate court case where the court states: “In its pleadings, AMV contends that it is presently a limited liability corporation known as ArcelorMittal Vinton LLC.” Wallace v. ArcelorMittal Vinton, Inc., 536 S.W.3d 19, 21 n.1 (Tex. App. 2016), review denied (Mar. 31, 2017). As is so often the case, that is not accurate.
In its brief, the entity AMV simply stated, that it was a Defendant-Appellee as named in the suit, ArcelorMittal Vinton, Inc., was “n/k/a [now known as] ArcelorMittal Vinton LLC.” Carla WALLACE, Plaintiff-Appellant, v. ARCELORMITTAL VINTON, INC., Defendant-Appellee., 2015 WL 7687420 (Tex.App.-El Paso), 1. AMV’s counsel never said it was a corporation. The court did that on its own.
Sigh. Even in Texas, LLCs are not corporations. I swear! I looked at the statute.
And yet, a close look at the statute shows why this gets confusing for some people. The Texas statute provides specific cross-references to certain business provisions (emphasis added):
Sec. 101.002. APPLICABILITY OF OTHER LAWS.
(b) For purposes of the application of Subsection (a):
(1) a reference to "shares" includes "membership interests";
(2) a reference to "holder," "owner," or "shareholder" includes a "member" and an "assignee";
(3) a reference to "corporation" or "corporate" includes a "limited liability company";
(4) a reference to "directors" includes "managers" of a manager-managed limited liability company and "members" of a member-managed limited liability company;
(5) a reference to "bylaws" includes "company agreement"; and
(6) the reference to "Sections 21.157-21.162" in Section 21.223(a)(1) refers to the provisions of Subchapter D of this chapter.
Added by Acts 2011, 82nd Leg., R.S., Ch. 25 (S.B. 323), Sec. 1, eff. September 1, 2011.
Tuesday, February 13, 2018
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)
Wednesday, January 31, 2018
After spending a little time with the new tax bill, I couldn't help but think, "there must be a better way." That reminded me of an article from a little while back in the West Virginia Law Review, titled, Legislation's Culture, by Richard K. Neumann, of Hofstra University - School of Law (PDF). Here’s the abstract:
American statutes can seem like labyrinthine mazes when compared to some countries’ legislation. French codes are admired for their intellectual elegance and clarity. Novelists and poets (Stendhal, Valéry) have considered the Code civil to be literature. Swedish legislation might be based on empirical research into problems the legislation is intended to remedy, and the drafting style, though modern today, is descended from an oral tradition of poetic narrative.
Comparing these legislative cultures with our own reveals that the main problem with American legislation is not too many words. It is too many ideas — a high ratio of concepts per legislative goal. When American, French, and Swedish legislatures address similar problems, the French and Swedes draft using far fewer concepts than Americans do. In both countries, simple solutions are preferred over convoluted ones. The drafters of the Code civil thought the highest intellectual and legislative accomplishment to be simplicity. The Swedes got to approximately the same place through a cultural value that law be understandable to the public. Where the American legislative process can seem chaotic, there has been some respect for Cartesian rationality in France and for empirical evidence in Sweden.
Even if American statutes were to be translated into ordinary English, they would still be labyrinths because our legislatures insist on addressing every conceivable detail that legislators can imagine. The result is excessively conceptualized legislation, imposing large numbers of duties. Statutory concepts cost money. They create issues, which must be decided by publicly funded courts and agencies with additional costs to the parties involved. Every unnecessary statutory concept wastes social and economic resources. And to the extent law seems incomprehensible to the public, it loses moral authority.
Having studied law in Louisiana, I admit to a certain soft spot for the civil code, even if my fondness is rooted firmly in this country. (In fact, about one year ago, we lost a giant in the civil law, Athanassios Nicholas "Thanassi" Yiannopoulos. See, for example, his work, A.N. Yiannopoulos, Requiem for a Civil Code: A Commemorative Essay, 78 TUL. L. REV. 379 (2003), available via Hein Online here.)
I digress. Back to my point, I think this statement from Neumman is spot on: "[T]o the extent law seems incomprehensible to the public, it loses moral authority." Absolute truth. And the same applies to regulations.
Tuesday, December 19, 2017
A recent case in Washington state introduced me to some interesting facets of Washington's recreational marijuana law. The case came to my attention because it is part of my daily search for cases (incorrectly) referring to limited liability companies (LLCs) as "limited liability corporations." The case opens:
In 2012, Washington voters approved Initiative Measure 502. LAWS OF 2013, ch. 3, codified as part of chapter 69.50 RCW. Initiative 502 legalizes the possession and sale of marijuana and creates a system for the distribution and sale of recreational marijuana. Under RCW 69.50.325(3)(a), a retail marijuana license shall be issued only in the name of the applicant. No retail marijuana license shall be issued to a limited liability corporation unless all members are qualified to obtain a license. RCW 69.50.331(1)(b)(iii). The true party of interest of a limited liability company is “[a]ll members and their spouses.”1 Under RCW 69.50.331(1)(a), the Washington State Liquor and Cannabis Board (WSLCB) considers prior criminal conduct of the applicant.2
(b) No license of any kind may be issued to:. . . .(iii) A partnership, employee cooperative, association, nonprofit corporation, or corporation unless formed under the laws of this state, and unless all of the members thereof are qualified to obtain a license as provided in this section;
True party of interest: Persons to be qualified
Sole proprietorship: Sole proprietor and spouse.General partnership: All partners and spouses.Limited partnership, limited liability partnership, or limited liability limited partnership: All general partners and their spouses and all limited partners and spouses.Limited liability company: All members and their spouses and all managers and their spouses.Privately held corporation: All corporate officers (or persons with equivalent title) and their spouses and all stockholders and their spouses.Publicly held corporation: All corporate officers (or persons with equivalent title) and their spouses and all stockholders and their spouses.
Multilevel ownership structures: All persons and entities that make up the ownership structure (and their spouses).
(1) A corporation has the officers described in its bylaws or appointed by the board of directors in accordance with the bylaws.(2) A duly appointed officer may appoint one or more officers or assistant officers if authorized by the bylaws or the board of directors.(3) The bylaws or the board of directors shall delegate to one of the officers responsibility for preparing minutes of the directors' and shareholders' meetings and for authenticating records of the corporation.(4) The same individual may simultaneously hold more than one office in a corporation.
Requirement for and duties of board of directors.
(1) Each corporation must have a board of directors, except that a corporation may dispense with or limit the authority of its board of directors by describing in its articles of incorporation, or in a shareholders' agreement authorized by RCW 23B.07.320, who will perform some or all of the duties of the board of directors.(2) Subject to any limitation set forth in this title, the articles of incorporation, or a shareholders' agreement authorized by RCW 23B.07.320:(a) All corporate powers shall be exercised by or under the authority of the corporation's board of directors; and(b) The business and affairs of the corporation shall be managed under the direction of its board of directors, which shall have exclusive authority as to substantive decisions concerning management of the corporation's business.
(4) Persons who exercise control of business - The WSLCB will conduct an investigation of any person or entity who exercises any control over the applicant's business operations. This may include both a financial investigation and/or a criminal history background.
December 19, 2017 in Corporations, Current Affairs, Entrepreneurship, Family Business, Joshua P. Fershee, Legislation, Licensing, LLCs, Management, Nonprofits, Partnership, Shareholders, Unincorporated Entities | Permalink | Comments (0)
Thursday, October 5, 2017
On Monday, the Supreme Court heard argument on three cases that could have a significant impact on an estimated 55% of employers and 25 million employees. The Court will opine on the controversial use of class action waivers and mandatory arbitration in the employment context. Specifically, the Court will decide whether mandatory arbitration violates the National Labor Relations Act or is permissible under the Federal Arbitration Act. Notably, the NLRA applies in the non-union context as well.
Monday’s argument was noteworthy for another reason—the Trump Administration reversed its position and thus supported the employers instead of the employees as the Obama Administration had done when the cases were first filed. The current administration also argued against its own NLRB’s position that these agreements are invalid.
In a decision handed down by the NLRB before the Trump Administration switched sides on the issue, the agency ruled that Dish Network’s mandatory arbitration provision violates §8(a)(1) of the NLRA because it “specifies in broad terms that it applies to ‘any claim, controversy and/or dispute between them, arising out of and/or in any way related to Employee’s application for employment, employment and/or termination of employment, whenever and wherever brought.’” The Board believed that employees would “reasonably construe” that they could not file charges with the NLRB, and this interfered with their §7 rights.
The potential impact of the Supreme Court case goes far beyond employment law, however. As the NLRB explained on Monday:
The Board's rule here is correct for three reasons. First, it relies on long-standing precedent, barring enforcement of contracts that interfere with the right of employees to act together concertedly to improve their lot as employees. Second, finding individual arbitration agreements unenforceable under the Federal Arbitrations Act savings clause because are legal under the National Labor Relations Act gives full effect to both statutes. And, third, the employer's position would require this Court, for the first time, to enforce an arbitration agreement that violates an express prohibition in another coequal federal statute. (emphasis added).
This view contradicted the employers' opening statement that:
Respondents claim that arbitration agreements providing for individual arbitration that would otherwise be enforceable under the FAA are nonetheless invalid by operation of another federal statute. This Court's cases provide a well-trod path for resolving such claims. Because of the clarity with which the FAA speaks to enforcing arbitration agreements as written, the FAA will only yield in the face of a contrary congressional command and the tie goes to arbitration. Applying those principles to Section 7 of the NLRA, the result is clear that the FAA should not yield.
My co-bloggers have written about mandatory arbitration in other contexts (e.g., Josh Fershee on derivative suits here, Ann Lipton on IPOs here, on corporate governance here, and on shareholder disputes here, and Joan Heminway promoting Steve Bradford’s work here). Although Monday’s case addresses the employment arena, many have concerns with the potential unequal playing field in arbitral settings, and I anticipate more litigation or calls for legislation.
I wrote about arbitration in 2015, after a New York Times series let the world in on corporate America’s secret. Before that expose, most people had no idea that they couldn’t sue their mobile phone provider or a host of other companies because they had consented to arbitration. Most Americans subject to arbitration never pay attention to the provisions in their employee handbook or in the pile of paperwork they sign upon hire. They don’t realize until they want to sue that they have given up their right to litigate over wage and hour disputes or join a class action.
As a defense lawyer, I drafted and rolled out class action waivers and arbitration provisions for businesses that wanted to reduce the likelihood of potentially crippling legal fees and settlements. In most cases, the employees needed to sign as a condition of continued employment. Thus, I’m conflicted about the Court’s deliberations. I see the business rationale for mandatory arbitration of disputes especially for small businesses, but as a consumer or potential plaintiff, I know I would personally feel robbed of my day in court.
The Court waited until Justice Gorsuch was on board to avoid a 4-4 split, but he did not ask any questions during oral argument. Given the questions that were asked and the makeup of the Court, most observers predict a 5-4 decision upholding mandatory arbitrations. The transcript of the argument is here. If that happens, I know that many more employers who were on the fence will implement these provisions. If they’re smart, they will also beef up their compliance programs and internal complaint mechanisms so that employees don’t need to resort to outsiders to enforce their rights.
My colleague Teresa Verges, who runs the Investor Rights Clinic at the University of Miami, has written a thought-provoking article that assumes that arbitration is here to stay. She proposes a more fair arbitral forum for those she labels “forced participants.” The abstract is below:
Decades of Supreme Court decisions elevating the Federal Arbitration Act (FAA) have led to an explosion of mandatory arbitration in the United States. A form of dispute resolution once used primarily between merchants and businesses to resolve their disputes, arbitration has expanded to myriad sectors, such as consumer and service disputes, investor disputes, employment and civil rights disputes. This article explores this expansion to such non-traditional contexts and argues that this shift requires the arbitral forum to evolve to increase protections for forced participants and millions of potential claims that involve matters of public policy. By way of example, decades of forced arbitration of securities disputes has led to increased due process and procedural reforms, even as concerns remain about investor access, the lack of transparency and investors’ perception of fairness.
I’ll report back on the Court’s eventual ruling, but in the meantime, perhaps some policymakers should consider some of Professor Verges’ proposals. Practically speaking though, once the NLRB has its full complement of commissioners, we can expect more employer-friendly decisions in general under the Trump Administration.
 Murphy Oil USA v. N.L.R.B., 808 F.3d 1013 (5th Cir. 2015), cert. granted, 137 S. Ct. 809, 196 L. Ed. 2d 595 (2017); Lewis v. Epic Sys. Corp., 823 F.3d 1147 (7th Cir. 2016), cert. granted, 137 S. Ct. 809, 196 l. Ed. 2d. 595 (2017); Morris v. Ernst & Young, LLP, 834 F.3d 975 (9th Cir. 2016), cert. granted, 137 S. Ct. 809, 196 L. Ed. 2d 595 (2017)
Tuesday, August 1, 2017
My colleague, Joan Heminway, yesterday posted Democratic Norms and the Corporation: The Core Notion of Accountability. She raises some interesting points (as usual), and she argues: "In my view, more work can be done in corporate legal scholarship to push on the importance of accountability as a corporate norm and explore further analogies between political accountability and corporate accountability."
I have not done a lot of reading in this area, but I am inclined to agree that it seems like an area that warrants more discussion and research. The post opens with some thought-provoking writing by Daniel Greenwood, including this:
Most fundamentally, corporate law and our major business corporations treat the people most analogous to the governed, those most concerned with corporate decisions, as mere helots. Employees in the American corporate law system have no political rights at all—not only no vote, but not even virtual representation in the boardroom legislature.
Those on the right, like Milton Friedman, argue that the shareholder-wealth-maximization requirement prohibits firms from acting in ways that benefit, say, local communities or the environment, at the expense of the bottom line. Those on the left, like Franken, argue that the duty to shareholders makes corporations untrustworthy and dangerous. They are both wrong.
August 1, 2017 in Business Associations, Corporations, CSR, Delaware, Joan Heminway, Joshua P. Fershee, Legislation, Management, Research/Scholarhip, Shareholders, Social Enterprise | Permalink | Comments (1)
Tuesday, July 25, 2017
I am speaking at a plenary session tomorrow during the the Energy Impacts Symposium at the Nationwide & Ohio Farm Bureau 4-H Conference Center in Columbus, Ohio. The program is exciting, and I look forward to being a part of it. The program is described as follows:
Energy Impacts 2017 is a energy research conference and workshop, organized by a 9-member interdisciplinary steering committee, focused on synthesis, comparison, and innovation among established and emerging energy impacts scholars from North America and abroad. We invite participation from sociologists, geographers, political scientists, economists, anthropologists, practitioners, and other interested parties whose work addresses impacts of new energy development for host communities and landscapes.
The pace, scale, and intensity of new energy development around the world demands credible and informed research about potential impacts to human communities that host energy developments. From new electrical transmission lines needed for a growing renewable energy sector to hydraulically fracturing shale for oil and gas, energy development can have broad and diverse impacts on the communities where it occurs. While a fast-growing cadre of researchers has emerged to produce important new research on the social, economic, and behavioral impacts from large-scale energy development for host communities and landscapes, their discoveries are often isolated within disciplinary boundaries.
Through facilitated interactive workshop activities, invited experts and symposium participants will produce a roadmap for future cross-disciplinary research priorities.
I will be talking about Community Development and the North Dakota Sovereign Wealth Fund, and we'll discuss the implications of the resource curse. I am of the view that the resource curse is correlative, not causative, and that natural resource extraction can prove harmful to local communities, but that it doesn't have to be. From North Dakota's $4.33 billion fund to Norway's Government Pension Fund Global, there are examples of funding that can provide for the future. But there are numerous examples of struggling communities and bankrupt local governments where funds benefited few. And even North Dakota and Norway provide stark contrasts in how the funds are used. The point, for me, is that generalizations overstate the role of the resource and understate the role of local decision making. What we prioritize matters, and often, I think, we can do better. It's not preordained. We can do better, as long as we decide to do so.
Tuesday, July 18, 2017
The more I read about social enterprise entities, the less I like about them. In 2014, my colleague Elaine Wilson and I wrote March of the Benefit Corporation: So Why Bother? Isn’t the Business Judgment Rule Alive and Well? We observed:
Regardless of jurisdiction, there may be value in having an entity that plainly states the entity’s benefit purpose, but in most instances, it does not seem necessary (and is perhaps even redundant). Furthermore, the existence of the benefit corporation opens the door to further scrutiny of the decisions of corporate directors who take into account public benefit as part of their business planning, which erodes director primacy, which limits director options, which can, ultimately, harm businesses by stifling innovation and creativity. In other words, this raises the question: does the existence of the benefit corporation as an alternative entity mean that traditional business corporations will be held to an even stricter, profit-maximization standard?
I am more firmly convinced this is the path we are on. The emergence of social enterprise enabling statutes and the demise of director primacy threaten to greatly, and gravely, limit the scope of business decisions directors can make for traditional for-profit entities, threatening both social responsibility and economic growth. Recent Delaware cases, as well as other writings from Delaware judges, suggest that shareholder wealth maximization has become a more singular and narrow obligation of for-profit entities, and that other types of entities (such as non profits or benefit corporations) are the only proper entity forms for companies seeking to pursue paths beyond pure, and blatant, profit seeking. 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, to the detriment of employees, society, and, yes, shareholders.
I know there are some who believe that I see the sky falling when it's just a little rain. Perhaps. I would certainly concede that the problems I see can be addressed through law, if necessary. I am just not a big fan of passing some more laws and regulations, so we can pass more laws to fix the things we added. My view of entity purpose remains committed to the principle of director primacy. Directors are obligated to run the entity for the benefit of the shareholders, but, absent fraud, illegality, or self-dealing, the directors decide what actions are for the benefit of shareholders. Period, full stop.
Tuesday, June 27, 2017
Reuters reports that minor league baseball players lost a claim for artificially low" wages. The court found, appropriately: "The employment contracts of minor league players relate to the business of providing public baseball games for profit between clubs of professional baseball players."
Samuel Kornhauser, the player's lawyer plan to ask the 9th Circuit to reconsider (probably en banc) or appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court. Kornhasuer, in an interview, stated:
"Obviously, we think it's wrong, and that the 'business of baseball' is a lot different today than it was in 1922. There is no reason minor leaguers should not have the right to negotiate for a competitive wage."
Kornhauser is certainly correct that things have changed in the last 100 years, though I would argue that the justification for the antitrust exemption was just as unfounded in 1922 as it is today. The origin is the Federal Baseball decision, and it was wrong then, and it is wrong now. But it is also the law of the land. The 1998 Curt Flood Act, as the court appropriately explains, "made clear [Congress intended] to maintain the baseball exemption for anything related to the employment of minor league players."
There is no question Congress can change the law, and there is no question Congress has not. This is one to be resolved via negotiation or legislation, issue, and not via the courts.
Wednesday, April 26, 2017
Last week, a reporter interviewed me regarding conflict minerals.The reporter specifically asked whether I believed there would be more litigation on conflict minerals and whether the SEC's lack of enforcement would cause companies to stop doing due diligence. I am not sure which, if any, of my remarks will appear in print so I am posting some of my comments below:
Just today, the GAO issued a report on conflict minerals. Dodd-Frank requires an annual report on the effectiveness of the rule "in promoting peace and security in the DRC and adjoining countries." Of note, the report explained that:
After conducting due diligence, an estimated 39 percent of the companies reported in 2016 that they were able to determine that their conflict minerals came from covered countries or from scrap or recycled sources, compared with 23 percent in 2015. Almost all of the companies that reported conducting due diligence in 2016 reported that they could not determine whether the conflict minerals financed or benefited armed groups, as in 2015 and 2014. (emphasis added).
The Trump Administration, some SEC commissioners, and many in Congress have already voiced their concerns about this legislation. I didn't have the benefit of the GAO report during my interview, but it will likely provide another nail in the coffin of the conflict minerals rule.
April 26, 2017 in Compliance, Corporate Governance, Corporations, CSR, Current Affairs, Human Rights, International Law, Legislation, Marcia Narine Weldon, Securities Regulation | Permalink | Comments (1)
Thursday, February 9, 2017
Shortly after the election in November, I blogged about Eleven Corporate Governance and Compliance Questions for the President-Elect. Those questions (in italics) and my updates are below:
- What will happen to Dodd-Frank? There are already a number of house bills pending to repeal parts of Dodd-Frank, but will President Trump actually try to repeal all of it, particularly the Dodd-Frank whistleblower rule? How would that look optically? Former SEC Commissioner Paul Atkins, a prominent critic of Dodd-Frank and the whistleblower program in particular, is part of Trump's transition team on economic issues, so perhaps a revision, at a minimum, may not be out of the question.
Last week, via Executive Order, President Trump made it clear (without naming the law) that portions of Dodd-Frank are on the chopping block and asked for a 120-day review. Prior to signing the order, the President explained, “We expect to be cutting a lot out of Dodd-Frank…I have so many people, friends of mine, with nice businesses, they can’t borrow money, because the banks just won’t let them borrow because of the rules and regulations and Dodd-Frank.” An executive order cannot repeal Dodd-Frank, however. That would require a vote of 60 votes in the Senate. To repeal or modify portions, the Senate only requires a majority vote.
Some portions of Dodd-Frank are already gone including the transparency provision, §1504, which NGOs had touted because it forced US issuers in the extractive industries to disclose certain payments made to foreign governments. I think this was a mistake. By the time you read this post, the controversial conflict minerals rule, which requires companies to determine and disclose whether tin, tungsten, tantalum, or gold come from the Democratic Republic of Congo or surrounding countries, may also be history. The President may issue another executive order this week that may spell the demise of the rule, especially because others in Congress have already introduced bills to repeal it. I agree with the repeal, as I have written about here, because I don’t think that the SEC is the right agency to address the devastating human rights crisis in Congo.
As for the whistleblower provisions, it is too soon to tell. See #7 below.
Based on an earlier Executive Order meant to cut regulations in general and the President’s reliance on corporate raider/activist Carl Icahn as regulation czar, we can assume that the financial sector will experience fewer and not more regulations under Trump.
- What will happen with the two SEC commissioner vacancies? How will this president and Congress fund the agency? 3. Will SEC Chair Mary Jo White stay or go and how might that affect the work of the agency to look at disclosure reform?
President Trump has nominated Jay Clayton, a lawyer who has represented Goldman Sachs and Alibaba to replace former prosecutor Mary Jo White. Based on his background and past representations, we may see less enforcement of the FCPA and more focus on capital formation and disclosure reform. Observers are divided on the FCPA enforcement because 2016 had some record-breaking fines. As for the other SEC vacancies, I will continue to monitor this.
- How will the vow to freeze the federal workforce affect OSHA, which enforces Sarbanes-Oxley?
The Department of Labor enforces OSHA, and the current nominee for Secretary, Andy Pudzer, is a fast food CEO with some labor issues of his own. His pro-business stance and his opposition to increases in the minimum wage and the DOL white-collar exemption changes don’t necessarily predict how he would enforce SOX, but we can assume that it won’t be as much of a priority as rolling back regulations he has already publicly opposed.
- In addition to the issues that Trump has with TPP and NAFTA, how will his administration and the Congress deal with the Export-Import (Ex-IM) bank, which cannot function properly as it is due to resistance from some in Congress. Ex-Im provides financing, export credit insurance, loans, and other products to companies (including many small businesses) that wish to do business in politically-risky countries.
- How will a more conservative Supreme Court deal with the business cases that will appear before it?
I will comment on this after the confirmation hearings of nominee Neil Gorsuch. Others have already predicted that he will be pro-business.
- Who will be the Attorney General and how might that affect criminal prosecution of companies and individuals? Should we expect a new memo or revision of policies for Assistant US Attorneys that might undo some of the work of the Yates Memo, which focuses on corporate cooperation and culpable individuals?
Senator Jeff Sessions was confirmed yesterday after a contentious hearing. During his hearing, he indicated that he supported whistleblower provisions related to the False Claims Act, and many believe that he will retain retain the Yates Memo. Ironically, prior to that confirmation, President Trump fired Acting Attorney General Sally Yates, for refusing to defend the President’s executive order on refugees and travel.
- What will happen with the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, which the DC Circuit recently ruled was unconstitutional in terms of its structure and power?
Despite, running on a populist theme, Trump has targeted a number of institutions meant to protect consumers. Based on reports, we will likely see some major restrictions on the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau and the rules related to disclosure and interest rates. Trump will likely replace the head, Richard Cordray, whom many criticize for his perceived unfettered power and the ability to set his own budget. The Financial Stability Oversight Council, established to address large, failing firms without the need for a bailout, is also at risk. The Volker Rule, which restricts banks from certain proprietary investments and limits ownership of covered funds, may also see revisions.
- What will happen with the Obama administration's executive orders on Cuba, which have chipped away at much of the embargo? The business community has lobbied hard on ending the embargo and eliminating restrictions, but Trump has pledged to require more from the Cuban government. Would he also cancel the executive orders as well?
I will comment on this in a separate post.
- What happens to the Public Company Accounting Board, which has had an interim director for several months?
The PCAOB is not directly covered by the February 3rd Executive Order described in #1, and many believe that the Executive Order related to paring back regulations will not affect the agency either, although the agency is already conducting its own review of regulations. In December, the agency received a budget increase.
- Jeb Henserling, who has adamantly opposed Ex-Im, the CFPB, and Dodd-Frank is under consideration for Treasury Secretary. What does this say about President-elect Trump's economic vision?
President Trump has tapped ex-Goldman Sachs veteran Steve Mnuchin, and some believe that he will be good for both Wall Street and Main Street. More to come on this in the future.
I will continue to update this list over the coming months. I will post separately today updating last week’s post on the effects of consumer boycotts and how public sentiment has affected Superbowl commercials, litigation, and the First Daughter all in the past few days.
February 9, 2017 in Compliance, Corporate Governance, Corporations, Current Affairs, Financial Markets, Human Rights, International Business, Legislation, Marcia Narine Weldon, Securities Regulation | Permalink | Comments (0)
Tuesday, January 17, 2017
Here we go again. The Oregon Federal District Court has a rule with an incorrect reference to LLCs on the books:
In diversity actions, any party that is a limited liability corporation (L.L.C.), a limited liability partnership (L.L.P.), or a partnership must, in the disclosure statement required by Fed. R. Civ. P. 7.1, list those states from which the owners/members/partners of the L.L.C., L.L.P., or partnership are citizens. If any owner/member/partner of the L.L.C., L.L.P., or partnership is another L.L.C., L.L.P., or partnership, then the disclosure statement must also list those states from which the owners/members/partners of the L.L.C., L.L.P., or partnership are citizens.
The certification requirements of LR 7.1-1 are broader than those established in Fed. R. Civ. P. 7.1. The Ninth Circuit has held that, “[L]ike a partnership, an LLC is a citizen of every state of which its owners/members/partners are citizens.” Johnson v. Columbia Properties Anchorage, LP, 437 F.3d 894, 899 (9th Cir. 2006). Early state citizenship disclosure will help address jurisdictional issues. Therefore, the disclosure must identify each and every state for which any owner/member/partner is a citizen. The disclosure does not need to include names of any owner/member/partner, nor does it need to indicate the number of owners/members/partners from any particular state.
For federal law purposes, it appears that the rule has excluded LLCs, despite the intent (and likely specific purpose) of the rule. Interestingly, Oregon law, has extended "unless context requires otherwise" the concept of LLCs to apply to partnership and corporate law. Oregon law provides:
Unless the context otherwise requires, throughout Oregon Revised Statutes:
(1) Wherever the term “person” is defined to include both a corporation and a partnership, the term “person” shall also include a limited liability company.(2) Wherever a section of Oregon Revised Statutes applies to both “partners” and “directors,” the section shall also apply:(a) In a limited liability company with one or more managers, to the managers of the limited liability company.(b) In a limited liability company without managers, to the members of the limited liability company.(3) Wherever a section of Oregon Revised Statutes applies to both “partners” and “shareholders,” the section shall also apply to members of a limited liability company.