Friday, December 18, 2020

Ten Business Questions for the Biden Administration

If you read the title, you’ll see that I’m only going to ask questions. I have no answers, insights, or predictions until the President-elect announces more cabinet picks. After President Trump won the election in 2016, I posed eleven questions and then gave some preliminary commentary based on his cabinet picks two months later. Here are my initial questions based on what I’m interested in -- compliance, corporate governance, human rights, and ESG. I recognize that everyone will have their own list:

  1. How will the Administration view disclosures? Will Dodd-Frank conflict minerals disclosures stay in place, regardless of the effectiveness on reducing violence in the Democratic Republic of Congo? Will the US add mandatory human rights due diligence and disclosures like the EU??
  2. Building on Question 1, will we see more stringent requirements for ESG disclosures? Will the US follow the EU model for financial services firms, which goes into effect in March 2021? With ESG accounting for 1 in 3 dollars of assets under management, will the Biden Administration look at ESG investing more favorably than the Trump DOL? How robust will climate and ESG disclosure get? We already know that disclosure of climate risks and greenhouse gases will be a priority. For more on some of the SEC commissioners’ views, see here.
  3. President-elect Biden has named what is shaping up to be the most diverse cabinet in history. What will this mean for the Trump administration’s Executive Order on diversity training and federal contractors? How will a Biden EEOC function and what will the priorities be?
  4. Building on Question 3, now that California and the NASDAQ have implemented rules and proposals on board diversity, will there be diversity mandates in other sectors of the federal government, perhaps for federal contractors? Is this the year that the Improving Corporate Governance Through Diversity Act passes? Will this embolden more states to put forth similar requirements?
  5. What will a Biden SEC look like? Will the SEC human capital disclosure requirements become more precise? Will we see more aggressive enforcement of large institutions and insider trading? Will there be more controls placed on proxy advisory firms? Is SEC Chair too small of a job for Preet Bharara?
  6. We had some of the highest Foreign Corrupt Practices Act fines on record under Trump’s Department of Justice. Will that ramp up under a new DOJ, especially as there may have been compliance failures and more bribery because of a world-wide recession and COVID? It’s more likely that sophisticated companies will be prepared because of the revamp of compliance programs based on the June 2020 DOJ Guidance on Evaluation of Corporate Compliance Programs and the second edition of the joint SEC/DOJ Resource Guide to the US Foreign Corrupt Practices Act. (ok- that was an insight).
  7. How will the Biden Administration promote human rights, particularly as it relates to business? Congress has already taken some action related to exports tied to the use of Uighur forced labor in China. Will the incoming government be even more aggressive? I discussed some potential opportunities for legislation related to human rights abuses abroad in my last post about the Nestle v Doe case in front of the Supreme Court. One area that could use some help is the pretty anemic Obama-era US National Action Plan on Responsible Business Conduct.
  8. What will a Biden Department of Labor prioritize? Will consumer protection advocates convince Biden to delay or dismantle the ERISA fiduciary rule? Will the 2020 joint employer rule stay in place? Will OSHA get the funding it needs to go after employers who aren’t safeguarding employees with COVID? Will unions have more power? Will we enter a more worker-friendly era?
  9. What will happen to whistleblowers? I served as a member of the Department of Labor’s Whistleblower Protection Advisory Committee for a few years under the Obama administration. Our committee had management, labor, academic, and other ad hoc members and we were tasked at looking at 22 laws enforced by OSHA, including Sarbanes-Oxley retaliation rules. We received notice that our services were no longer needed after the President’s inauguration in 2017. Hopefully, the Biden Administration will reconstitute it. In the meantime, the SEC awarded record amounts under the Dodd-Frank whistleblower program in 2020 and has just reformed the program to streamline it and get money to whistleblowers more quickly.
  10. What will President-elect Biden accomplish if the Democrats do not control the Congress?

There you have it. What questions would you have added? Comment below or email me at mweldon@law.miami.edu. 

December 18, 2020 in Compliance, Corporate Governance, Corporate Personality, Corporations, CSR, Current Affairs, Financial Markets, Human Rights, International Business, Legislation, Marcia Narine Weldon, Securities Regulation, Shareholders, White Collar Crime | Permalink | Comments (2)

Friday, December 4, 2020

Did A Child Slave Help Make Your Chocolate Bar and If So, Who Should Be Responsible? The Supreme Court and Nestle v. Doe

If you’re sipping some hot chocolate while reading this post or buying your Hanukah or Christmas candy, chances are you’re consuming a product made with cocoa beans harvested by child slaves in Africa. Almost twenty years ago, the eight largest chocolate companies, a US Senator, a Congressman,  the Ambassador to the Ivory Coast, NGOs, and the ILO pledged through the Harkin Engel Protocol to eliminate “the worst forms of” child slavery and forced labor in supply chains. In 2010, after seeing almost no progress, government representatives fom the US, Ghana, and the Ivory Coast released a Framework of Action to support the implementation and to reduce the use of child and forced labor by 70% by 2020. But, the number of child slaves has actually increased.

2020 has come and almost gone and one of the Harkin Engel signatories, Nestle, and another food conglomerate, Cargill, had to defend themselves in front of the Supreme Court this week in a case filed in 2005 by former child slaves. The John Does were allegedly kidnapped in Mali and forced to work on cocoa farms in the Ivory Coast, where they worked 12-14 hours a day in 100-degree weather, spoke a different language from the farmers, lived off dirty water and bowls of rice, and were never paid. According to counsel for the Respondents who gave a debrief earlier this week, the children were locked up at night, told to work or starve, whipped, and when one tried to escape, his feet were slashed and then hot chilis were rubbed into his soles. Respondents sued under the Alien Tort Statute, which Congress passed in 1789 to allow foreign citizens to sue in US federal courts for violations of “the law of nations” to avoid international tensions. In two recent cases, the Court has limited the use of the ATS against foreign corporations sued for acts against foreign plaintiffs because of jurisdictional grounds and ruled that foreign corporations were not subject to the ATS. But the Nestle and Cargill case is different. Respondents sued a US company and the US arm of a Swiss company. (Click here for access to the briefs and here to listen to the oral argument.) For an excellent symposium on the issues see here.

Respondents claim that the companies provided money and resources to the farmers in Africa and knew that child slaves harvested their cocoa. The two questions before the Court were:

  1. May an aiding and abetting claim against a domestic corporation brought under the Alien Tort Statute overcome the extraterritoriality bar where the claim is based on allegations of general corporate activity in the United States and where the Respondents cannot trace the alleged harms, which occurred abroad at the hands of unidentified foreign actors, to that activity?
  1. Does the judiciary have the authority under the Alien Tort Statute to impose liability on domestic corporations?

To those who obsess about business and human rights and ESG issues like I do, this case has huge potential implications. Regular readers of this blog know that I’ve written more than half a dozen posts, law review articles, and an amicus brief on the Dodd-Frank conflict minerals disclosures, which purport to inform consumers about the use of forced labor and child slaves in the harvesting of tin, tungsten, tantalum, and gold. I’ve been skeptical of those disclosure rules that don’t have real penalties. The Nestle case could change all of that by crafting a cognizable cause of action.

To my surprise, the Justices weren’t completely hostile to the thought of corporate liability under the ATS. Here are some of the more telling questions to the counsel for the companies:

Justice Alito: Mr. Katyal, many of your arguments lead to results that are pretty hard to take. So suppose a U.S. corporation makes a big show of supporting every cause de jure but then surreptitiously hires agents in Africa to kidnap children and keep them in bondage on a plantation so that the corporation can buy cocoa or coffee or some other agricultural product at bargain prices. You would say that the victims who couldn't possibly get any recovery in the courts of the country where they had been held should be thrown out of court in the United States, where this corporation is headquartered and does business?

Justice Breyer: …I don't see why exempt all corporations, including domestic corporations, from this -- the scope of the statute.

Justice Kagan: If you could bring a suit against 10 slaveholders, when those 10 slaveholders form a corporation, why can’t you bring a suit against the corporation?

Justice Kavanaugh: The  Alien  Tort  Statute was once an engine of international human rights protection. Your position, however, would allow suits by aliens only against individuals, as you've said, and only for torts international law recognized that occurred in the United States. And Professor Koh's amicus brief on behalf of former government officials, for example, says that your position would "gut the statute." So why should we do that?

Here are some of the more interesting questions to the government, which supports the companies’ positions against application of the ATS to corporations:

Chief Justice Roberts: We don't have objections from foreign countries in this case. As far as we can tell, they're perfectly comfortable having U.S. citizens, U.S. corporations hailed into their U -- in U.S. courts. What should we make of that, and doesn't that suggest we ought to be a little more -- a little less cautious about finding a cause of action here?

Justice Breyer: …what’s new about suing corporations? When I looked it up once, there were 180 ATS lawsuits against corporations. Most of them lost but on other grounds. So why not sue a domestic corporation? You can't sue the individual because, in my hypothetical, the individuals have all moved to Lithuania. All you have is the corporate assets in the bank and minutes that prove it was a corporate decision. What's new about it? Why is it creating a form of action?

Justice Alito: Won't your arguments about aiding and abetting and extraterritoriality all lead to essentially the same result as holding that a domestic corporation cannot be sued under the ATS? Corporations always act through natural persons, so if a corporation can't aid and abet, there -- there will be only a sliver of activity where they could be responsible under respondeat superior, isn't that true?

Justice Amy Coney Barrett:  You say that the focus of the tort should be the primary conduct, so, here, what was happening in Cote d'Ivoire, rather than the aiding and abetting, which you characterize as secondary. But why should that be so? I mean, let's imagine you have a U.S. corporation or even a U.S. individual that is making plans to facilitate the use of child slaves, you know, making phone calls, sending money specifically for that purpose, writing e-mails to that effect.Why isn't that conduct that occurs in the United States something that touches and concerns, you know, or should be the focus of conduct, however you want to state the test?

Finally, here are some of the tough questions posed to counsel for the Respondents:

Justice Thomas: The TVPA [Trafficking Victims Protection Act] seems to suggest that Congress does not see the ATS the way you do. Obviously, there, you don't have corporate liability and you don't have aiding and abetting liability. So why shouldn't we take that as an indication that Congress sought limitations on -- on the ATS jurisdiction?

Justice Breyer: Assume that there is corporate liability for domestic corporations. Assume that there is aiding and abetting liability. Now what counts as aiding and abetting for purposes of this statute? When I read through your complaint, it seemed to me that all or virtually all of your complaint amount to doing business with these people.They help pay for the farm. And that's about it.And they knowingly do it. Well, unfortunately, child labor, it's terrible, but it exists throughout the world in many, many places. And if we take this as the norm, particularly when Congress is now working in the area, that will mean throughout the world this is the norm. And I don't know, but I have concern that treating this allegation, the six that you make here, as aiding and abetting falling within that term for purposes of this statute, if other nations do the same, and we do the same, could have very, very significant effects. I'm just saying I'm worried about that.

Justice Alito: So, after 15 years, is it too much to ask that you allege specifically that the -- the defendants involved -- the defendants who are before us here specifically knew that forced child labor was being used on the farms or farm cooperatives with which they did business? Is that too much to ask?

 

To be fair, Nestle and Cargill have worked to remedy these issues. Nestle’s 2019 Shared Values Report tracks its commitments to individuals and families, communities, and the planet to the UN Sustainable Development Goals. Among other things, the report highlights Nestle's work to reduce human rights abuses and links to its December 2019 report on child labor and cocoa farms. The company touts its progress but admits it has a long way to go. Cargill has a separate Cocoa Sustainability Progress Report, which describes its 2012 Cargill Cocoa Promise for capacity building and a more transparent supply chain. But is it enough?

In any event, we won’t know what the Court decides until Spring. In the meantime, despite the best efforts of the companies, almost two million children still work in the cocoa harvesting business and most aren’t kidnapped anymore. They need the work. The local governments have taken notice in part due to the terrible publicity from the media. Allegedly, however, Hershey and Mars are trying to avoid the $400 a ton premium that the West African governments are levying to provide more funding for the farmers. The companies deny these allegations. But there’s now a chocolate war. This means your chocolate may get more expensive, and that’s not necessarily a bad thing.

How will this all shake out? There’s a chance that the Court could find for the Respondents. More likely, though advocates will focus on convincing Congress to expand the Trafficking Victims Protection Act to include corporations. Some NGOs are already talking about increasing consumer awareness and spurring boycotts. Perhaps, advocates will put pressure on the Biden administration to ban the import on chocolate harvested with child labor, similar to the ban on some products produced by Uighurs in China.I expect that there will be a lot of lobbying at the state and federal level to deal with the larger issue of whether corporations that have some of the rights of natural persons should also have the responsibilities. Boards and companies should get prepared. In the meantime, do you plan to give up chocolate?

December 4, 2020 in Compliance, Corporate Governance, Corporate Personality, Corporations, CSR, Current Affairs, Ethics, Human Rights, Legislation, Marcia Narine Weldon | Permalink | Comments (0)

Friday, October 23, 2020

When Wall Street Talks, Does Washington Listen?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

October 23, 2020 in Contracts, Corporate Governance, Corporate Personality, Corporations, CSR, Current Affairs, Employment Law, Ethics, Financial Markets, Human Rights, Legislation, Management, Marcia Narine Weldon, Nonprofits, Stefan J. Padfield | Permalink | Comments (1)

Monday, April 6, 2020

The Defense Production Act?!

In my post last week, I mentioned the President's invocation of the Defense Production Act during the current COVID-19 crisis.  I was immediately curious about this law when news of the President's March 27 memorandum focused on General Motors and ventilator production hit my radar screen (a/k/a, my laptop, which has effectively become my lap these days).  Surely, it must be unusual for the U.S. government, I thought, to direct the nature, means, and timing of production and supply.  That seems antithetical to the spirit, if not the letter, of U.S. capitalism.  However, the more I read, the less curious and concerned I am, at least for the moment.  Perhaps some of the reporting in this area is more geared to generating a splashy news item than, well, alerting us to something truly unusual or troubling.  Nevertheless, I will make a few foundational points on the Act here.  I may have more to say later.

The Defense Production Act of 1950 can be found in Chapter 55 of Title 50 of the U.S. Code.  The Act recognizes that "the security of the United States is dependent on the ability of the domestic industrial base to supply materials and services for the national defense and to prepare for and respond to military conflicts, natural or man-caused disasters, or acts of terrorism within the United States."  50 U.S.C. § 4502(a)(1). To meet these and other requirements, the Defense Production Act "provides the President with an array of authorities to shape national defense preparedness programs and to take appropriate steps to maintain and enhance the domestic industrial base."  Id. at § 4502(a)(4).

The President's highly publicized General Motors memorandum referenced above is only one of a number of formalized presidential actions citing to or using the Defense Production Act in the war against COVID-19.  That memorandum directs the Secretary of Health and Human Services to "use any and all authority available under the Act to require General Motors Company to accept, perform, and prioritize contracts or orders for the number of ventilators that the Secretary determines to be appropriate."  The General Motors memorandum follows on a March 16 executive order delegating specified presidential powers under Section 101 of the Act to the Secretary of Health and Human Services.  An April 2 memorandum directs the Secretary of Homeland Security "through the Administrator of the Federal Emergency Management Agency (Administrator), . . . [to] use any and all authority available under the Act to acquire, from any appropriate subsidiary or affiliate of 3M Company, the number of N-95 respirators that the Administrator determines to be appropriate."  A second April 2 memorandum directs the Secretary of Health and Human Services, "in consultation with the Secretary of Homeland Security, . . . [to] use any and all authority available under the Act to facilitate the supply of materials to the appropriate subsidiary or affiliate of the following entities for the production of ventilators: General Electric Company; Hill-Rom Holdings, Inc.; Medtronic Public Limited Company; ResMed Inc.; Royal Philips N.V.; and Vyaire Medical, Inc."  Finally, an April 3 memorandum directs the Secretary of Homeland Security "through the Administrator of the Federal Emergency Management Agency, in consultation with the Secretary of Health and Human Services, . . . [to] use any and all authority available under section 101 of the Act to allocate to domestic use, as appropriate, . . . [specified] scarce or threatened materials designated by the Secretary of Health and Human Services . . . ."  The President also issued a related statement on April 3 that decries "wartime profiteering."

Although the use of the Defense Production Act in directing production during the ongoing COVID-19 crisis may be novel in its nature or scale, Fortune reports that the Act is used "routinely" to prioritize contracts relating to military procurements and in response to natural disasters.  Other past uses also are mentioned in that Fortune article.  None of the President's actions to date invoking the Act as to production by specific firms is in the form of an executive order.  However, the President is afforded many powers under the Act, see 50 U.S.C. § 4554(a) (providing in relevant part that "the President may prescribe such regulations and issue such orders as the President may determine to be appropriate"), although they are subject to certain limitations (including, e.g., broad-based restrictions relating to "wage or price controls" and "chemical or biological weapons" under 50 U.S.C. § 4514).

Even without the issuance of enforceable presidential orders, however, those charged with manufacturing under the various presidential memoranda are (and in some cases, prior to presidential action, were) scrambling to make up for lost time.  A report published over the weekend in The Washington Post describes the status of some of their efforts.  CNBC's similar report is here.  Time weighed in a few days earlier with its story.  Finally, an earlier report from The New York Times offers historic details relevant at that time.  Private industry has been stepping up in so many ways during the pandemic.  With all the hullabaloo around the Defense Production Act, we all should know about and be proud of that.

As for the actual COVID-19 business operational effects of the powers afforded to the President under the Defense Production Act, they remain to be seen.  My interest has been whetted, however, and I will be paying attention to future invocations of the Act not only in the COVID-19 crisis, but also in other contexts.  My perception is that it is one of the lesser-known laws that can impact business in a significant ways if the full force of its provisions is employed.  It is legislation--even 70 years out--that all of us business lawyers and law professors should be aware of.

April 6, 2020 in Current Affairs, Joan Heminway, Legislation | Permalink | Comments (2)

Monday, March 30, 2020

When Your Former Students Make You Proud . . . And Make You Laugh

COVID-19's effects on financings and M&A, as well as contracts more generally (as covered here, here, and here among many other places), the rapid adoption of the Coronavirus Act, Relief, and Economic Security Act, a/k/a the “CARES Act” (key terms summarized briefly here and elsewhere), and the President's invocation of the Defense Production Act have me feeling like I am drinking business law water out of a fire hose this past week.  Anyone else feeling that way?  Whew!

I am still sorting through it all.  I am sure that I will have more to say on some of this as time passes.  However, earlier today, in the process of reading online resources and watching and listening to others talk about the many legal aspects of the current pandemic, I came across this YouTube video, done by one of my former students, a local attorney who works with entrepreneurs, start-ups, and small businesses.

I have not fact-checked this video.  And he jumps in to correct himself.  But what I like about it is that it represents unvarnished, even humorous, boots-on-the-ground legal public service.  He does not want businesses in the local community to miss out or waste time/money shooting in the dark--or in the wrong direction.  

Sometimes, our students do great things after they leave the hallowed halls of law school.  Many times, those good deeds go unrecognized.  Haseeb has always been passionate.  It makes me so happy to see him using his passion to help the local business community.  I want to offer a "shout out" to him here.  (And his dog, Simon, is the cutest! ♥)

March 30, 2020 in Current Affairs, Entrepreneurship, Joan Heminway, Legislation | Permalink | Comments (0)

Saturday, September 7, 2019

Beyond Bitcoin: Leveraging Blockchain to Benefit Business and Society

Have you ever wanted to learn the basics about blockchain? Do you think it's all hype and a passing fad? Whatever your view, take a look at my new article, Beyond Bitcoin: Leveraging Blockchain to Benefit Business and Society, co-authored with Rachel Epstein, counsel at Hedera Hashgraph.  I became interested in blockchain a year ago because I immediately saw potential use cases in supply chain, compliance, and corporate governance. I met Rachel at a Humanitarian Blockchain Summit and although I had already started the article, her practical experience in the field added balance, perspective, and nuance. 

The abstract is below:

Although many people equate blockchain with bitcoin, cryptocurrency, and smart contracts, the technology also has the potential to transform the way companies look at governance and enterprise risk management, and to assist governments and businesses in mitigating human rights impacts. This Article will discuss how state and non-state actors use the technology outside of the realm of cryptocurrency. Part I will provide an overview of blockchain technology. Part II will briefly describe how public and private actors use blockchain today to track food, address land grabs, protect refugee identity rights, combat bribery and corruption, eliminate voter fraud, and facilitate financial transactions for those without access to banks. Part III will discuss key corporate governance, compliance, and social responsibility initiatives that currently utilize blockchain or are exploring the possibilities for shareholder communications, internal audit, and cyber security. Part IV will delve into the business and human rights landscape and examine how blockchain can facilitate compliance. Specifically, we will focus on one of the more promising uses of distributed ledger technology -- eliminating barriers to transparency in the human rights arena thereby satisfying various mandatory disclosure regimes and shareholder requests. Part V will pose questions that board members should ask when considering adopting the technology and will recommend that governments, rating agencies, sustainable stock exchanges, and institutional investors provide incentives for companies to invest in the technology, when appropriate. Given the increasing widespread use of the technology by both state and non-state actors and the potential disruptive capabilities, we conclude that firms that do not explore blockchain’s impact risk obsolescence or increased regulation.

Things change so quickly in this space. Some of the information in the article is already outdated and some of the initiatives have expanded. To keep up, you may want to subscribe to newsletters such as Hunton, Andrews, Kurth's Blockchain Legal Resource. For more general information on blockchain, see my post from last year, where I list some of the videos that I watched to become literate on the topic. For additional resources, see here and here

If you are interested specifically in government use cases, consider joining the Government Blockchain Association. On September 14th and 15th,  the GBA is holding its Fall 2019 Symposium, “The Future of Money, Governance and the Law,” in Arlington, Virginia. Speakers will include a chief economist from the World Bank and banking, political, legal, regulatory, defense, intelligence, and law enforcement professionals from around the world.  This event is sponsored by the George Mason University Schar School of Policy and Government, Criminal Investigations and Network Analysis (CINA) Center, and the Government Blockchain Association (GBA). Organizers expect over 300 government, industry and academic leaders on the Arlington Campus of George Mason University, either in person or virtually. To find out more about the event go to: http://bit.ly/FoMGL-914.

Blockchain is complex and it's easy to get overwhelmed. It's not the answer to everything, but I will continue my focus on the compliance, governance, and human rights implications, particularly for Dodd-Frank and EU conflict minerals due diligence and disclosure. As lawyers, judges, and law students, we need to educate ourselves so that we can provide solid advice to legislators and business people who can easily make things worse by, for example, drafting laws that do not make sense and developing smart contracts with so many loopholes that they cause jurisdictional and enforcement nightmares.

Notwithstanding the controversy surrounding blockchain, I'm particularly proud of this article and would not have been able to do it without my co-author, Rachel, my fantastic research assistants Jordan Suarez, Natalia Jaramillo, and Lauren Miller from the University of Miami School of Law, and the student editors at the Tennessee Journal of Business Law. If you have questions or please post them below or reach out to me at mweldon@law.miami.edu. 

 

 

September 7, 2019 in Compliance, Conferences, Contracts, Corporate Governance, Corporations, CSR, Current Affairs, Financial Markets, Human Rights, Law Reviews, Lawyering, Legislation, Marcia Narine Weldon, Securities Regulation, Shareholders, Technology | Permalink | Comments (0)

Friday, May 24, 2019

Scooters and the Difficulty of Measuring Social Value

Bird

"Bird Scooter" by mikecogh is licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0 

Here in Nashville, Mayor David Briley announced that he is seeking to ban scooters. This announcement follows the first scooter-related death in the city.

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.

May 24, 2019 in Business Associations, CSR, Haskell Murray, Legislation, Social Enterprise | Permalink | Comments (1)

Tuesday, January 29, 2019

WV Proposal to Eliminate LLC Veil Piercing: Reasonable Concept, Needs A Lot of Work

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 solely by 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.]

Next, 

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. 

January 29, 2019 in Joshua P. Fershee, Legislation, LLCs | Permalink | Comments (5)

Saturday, October 13, 2018

Has the Dodd-Frank Conflict Minerals Rule Really Made a Difference and is Blockchain The Answer?

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 rulehere about the EU's version of the rulehere 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

Everyone Wants to Make Non-Corporate Things Corporate: It's Sen. Warren's Turn

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 blogCountless 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.”

LARGE ENTITIES.—

(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:

(e) APPLICATION.—

(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

Why Lawyers, Law Professors, and Judges Should Care About Blockchain

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.

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.

Professor Del Wright, University of Missouri-Kansas City School of Law;

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.

Professor Catherine Christopher, Texas Tech University School of Law;

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.

Professor Tonya Evans, University of New Hampshire School of Law (follow her on Twitter; see her blog on blockchain here);

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.

Professor Rebecca Bratspies, CUNY School of Law;

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.

Professor Charlotte Tschider, William Mitchell College of Law (follow her on Twitter);

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.

Professor Eric Chason, William & Mary Marshall-Wythe School of Law;

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

Energy and Business Nexus: Decarbonizing Light-Duty Vehicles

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). 

July 10, 2018 in Current Affairs, Entrepreneurship, Joshua P. Fershee, Legislation, Research/Scholarhip | Permalink | Comments (0)

Tuesday, April 10, 2018

Language Matters (Non-LLC edition): "Fiduciary" Does Not Mean "Financial"

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.  

April 10, 2018 in Corporate Finance, Joshua P. Fershee, Legislation, Nonprofits | Permalink | Comments (2)

Friday, April 6, 2018

The Effect of Mandatory Arbitration in the Employment Law Context

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.  

 

April 6, 2018 in Corporate Personality, Corporations, Employment Law, Legislation, Litigation, Marcia Narine Weldon | Permalink | Comments (0)

Tuesday, February 27, 2018

State Laws Committed to Confusing Business Entities, Courts Happy to Help

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. 

(a)  Subject to Section 101.114, Sections 21.223, 21.224, 21.225, and 21.226 apply to a limited liability company and the company's members, owners, assignees, affiliates, and subscribers.

(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.

As Ham Porter would say, "You're killing me, Smalls." 

February 27, 2018 in Corporations, Joshua P. Fershee, Legislation, LLCs | Permalink | Comments (0)

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)

Wednesday, January 31, 2018

Rethinking Legislation (Again) After Some Time with the New Tax Bill

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.  

 

 

January 31, 2018 in Joshua P. Fershee, Legislation | Permalink | Comments (1)

Tuesday, December 19, 2017

Washington Marijuana Law Has Entity Type Quirks (And LLCs Are Still Not Corporations)

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

LIBBY HAINES-MARCHEL & ROCK ISLAND CHRONICS, LLC, Dba CHRONICS, Appellants, v. WASHINGTON STATE LIQUOR & CANNABIS BOARD, an Agency of the State of Washington, Respondent., No. 75669-9-I, 2017 WL 6427358, at *1 (Wash. Ct. App. Dec. 18, 2017) (emphasis added).  
 
The reference to a limited liability corporation appears simply to be a misstatement, as the statute properly references limited liability companies as distinct from corporations. The legal regime does, though, have some interesting requirements from an entity law perspective. First, the law provides:
 
(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;
Wash. Rev. Code § 69.50.331 (b)(iii) (West). It makes some sense to restrict the business to in-state entities given the licensing restrictions that state has, although it is not clear to me that the state could not engage in the same level of oversight if an entity were, say, a California corporation or a West Virginia LLC. 
 
The state's licensing requirements, as stated in Washington Administrative Code 314-55-035 ("What persons or entities have to qualify for a marijuana license?") provide: "A marijuana license must be issued in the name(s) of the true party(ies) of interest." The code then lists what it means to be a  “true party of interest” for a variety of entities. 
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).
Wash. Admin. Code 314-55-035. 

This is a pretty comprehensive list, but I note that the corporation requirements are missing some noticeable parties: directors. The code states, for both privately and publicly held corporations, that all "corporate officers (or persons with equivalent title)" and their spouses and all stockholders and their spouses must be qualified. Directors are not "equivalent" in title to officers. Officers, under Washington law, are described as follows:
 
(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.
Wash. Rev. Code § 23B.08.400. Directors have a different role. The statute provides:

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.
Wash. Rev. Code § RCW 23B.08.010.
 
The Code, then, seems to provide that directors are, as a group, exempt from the spousal connection. The code separately provides:
 
(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. 
Wash. Admin. Code 314-55-035.  This provision would clearly include directors, but also clearly excludes spouses. That distinction is fine, I suppose, but it is not at all clear to me why one would want to treat directors differently than LLC managers (and their spouses).  To the extent there is concern about spousal influence--to the level that the state would want to require qualification of spouses of shareholders in a publicly held entity--leaving this gap open for all corporate directors seems to be a rather big miss (or a deliberate exception).  Either way, it's an interesting quirk of an interesting new statute.   
 
 
 
 
 
 

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

Should Employees Have Their Day in Court? The Supreme Court and Mandatory Arbitration

On Monday, the Supreme Court heard argument on three cases[1] 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.

 

[1] 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)

October 5, 2017 in Compliance, Corporate Governance, Corporations, Current Affairs, Employment Law, Legislation, Litigation, Marcia Narine Weldon | Permalink | Comments (0)

Tuesday, August 1, 2017

More on Corporations, Accountability, and the Proper Locus of Power

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.
Joan correctly observes, "Whether you agree with Daniel or not on the substance, his views are transparent and his belief and energy are palpable." Although I admit I have not spent a lot of time with his writing, but my initial take is that I do not agree with his premise. That is, employees do have political rights, and they have them where they belong: in local, state, and federal elections.  Employees, in most instances, do not have political rights within their employment at all.  Whether you work for the government, a nonprofit, or a small sole proprietorship, you don't generally have political rights as to your employment.  You may have some say in an employee-owned entity, and you may have some votes via union membership, but even there, those votes aren't really as to your employment specifically. 
 
The idea of seeking democratic norms via the corporate entity itself strikes me as flawed.  If people don't like how corporations (or other entities) operate, then it would seem to me the political process can solve that via appropriate legislation or regulation. That is, make laws that allow entities to do more social good if they are so inclined. Or even require entities to do so, if that's the will of the people (this is not a recommendation, merely an observation).  Scholars like Greenwood and others continue to make assertions that entities cannot make socially responsible choices. He states, " The law bars [corporations], in the absence of unanimous consent, from making fundamental value choices, for example, from balancing the pursuit of profit against other potential corporate goals, such as quality products, interests of non-shareholder participants or even the actual financial interests of the real human beings who own the shares."  And judges and scholars, like Chancellor Chandler and Chief Justice Strine, have reinforced this view, which, I maintain, is wrong (or should be).  
 
Professor Bainbridge has explained, "The fact that corporate law does not intend to promote corporate social responsibility, but rather merely allows it to exist behind the shield of the business judgment rule becomes significant in -- and is confirmed by -- cases where the business judgment rule does not apply." Todd Henderson similarly argued, and I agree, 
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.
I don't disagree with Joan (or with Greenwood, for that matter), that accountability matters, but I do think we should frame accountability properly, and put accountability where it belongs.  That is political accountability and corporate accountability are different. As I see it, corporations are not directly accountable to citizens (employees or not) in this sense (they are in contract and tort, of course). Corporations are accountable to their shareholders, and to some degree to legislators and regulators who can modify the rules based on how corporations act.  Politicians, on the other hand, are accountable to the citizens.  If citizens are not happy with how entities behave, they can take that to their politicians, who can then choose to act (or not) on their behalf.  
 
I think entities should consider the needs of employees, and I believe entities would be well served to listen to their employees. I happen to think that is good business. But I think the idea that employees have a right to a formal voice at the highest levels within the entity is flawed, until such time as the business itself or legislators or regulators decide to make that the rule. (I do not, to be clear, think that would be a good rule for legislators or regulators to make for private entities.) The proper balance of laws and regulations is a separate question from this discussion, though. Here, the key is that accountability -- or, as Prof. Bainbridge says, "the power to decide" -- remains in the right place.  I am inclined to think the power structure is correct right now, and whether that power is being used correctly is an entirely different, and separate, issue.  

August 1, 2017 in Business Associations, Corporations, CSR, Delaware, Joan Heminway, Joshua P. Fershee, Legislation, Management, Research/Scholarhip, Shareholders, Social Enterprise | Permalink | Comments (1)