Friday, August 14, 2020

Wokewashing and the Board

As an academic and consultant on environmental, social, and governance (ESG) matters, I’ve used a lot of loaded terms -- greenwashing, where companies tout an environmentally friendly record but act otherwise; pinkwashing, where companies commoditize breast cancer awareness or LGBTQ issues; and bluewashing, where companies rally around UN corporate social responsibility initiatives such as the UN Global Compact.

In light of recent events, I’ve added a new term to my arsenal—wokewashing. Wokewashing occurs when a company attempts to show solidarity with certain causes in order to gain public favor. Wokewashing isn’t a new term. It’s been around for years, but it gained more mainstream traction last year when Unilever’s CEO warned that companies were eroding public trust and industry credibility, stating:

 Woke-washing is beginning to infect our industry. It’s polluting purpose. It’s putting in peril the very thing which offers us the opportunity to help tackle many of the world’s issues. What’s more, it threatens to further destroy trust in our industry, when it’s already in short supply… There are too many examples of brands undermining purposeful marketing by launching campaigns which aren’t backing up what their brand says with what their brand does. Purpose-led brand communications is not just a matter of ‘make them cry, make them buy’. It’s about action in the world.

The Black Lives Matter and anti-racism movements have brought wokewashing front and center again. My colleague Stefan Padfield has written about the need for heightened scrutiny of politicized decisions and corporate responses to the BLM movement here, here, and here, and Ann Lipton has added to the discussion here. How does a board decide what to do when faced with pressure from stakeholders? How much is too much and how little is too little?

The students in my summer Regulatory Compliance, Corporate Governance, and Sustainability course were torn when they acted as board members deciding whether to make a public statement on Black Lives Matter and the murder of George Floyd. As fiduciaries of a consumer goods company, the “board members” felt that they had to say “something,” but in the days before class they had seen the explosion of current and former employees exposing  companies with strong social justice messaging by pointing to hypocrisy in their treatment of employees and stakeholders. They had witnessed the controversy over changing the name of the Redskins based on pressure from FedEx and other sponsors (and not the Native Americans and others who had asked for the change for years). They had heard about the name change of popular syrup, Aunt Jemima. I intentionally didn’t force my students to draft a statement. They merely had to decide whether to speak at all, and this was difficult when looking at the external realities. Most of the students voted to make some sort of statement even as every day on social media, another “woke” company had to defend itself in the court of public opinion. Others, like Nike, have received praise for taking a strong stand in the face of public pressure long before it was cool and profitable to be “woke.”

Now it’s time for companies to defend themselves in actual court (assuming plaintiffs can get past various procedural hurdles). Notwithstanding Facebook and Oracle’s Delaware forum selection bylaws, the same lawyers who filed the shareholder derivative action against Google after its extraordinary sexual harassment settlement have filed shareholder derivative suits in California against Facebook, Oracle, and Qualcomm. Among other things, these suits generally  allege breach of the Caremark duty, false statements in proxy materials purporting to have a commitment to diversity, breach of fiduciary duty relating to a diverse slate of candidates for board positions, and unjust enrichment. Plaintiffs have labeled these cases civil rights suits, targeting Facebook for allowing hate speech and discriminatory advertising, Qualcomm for underpaying women and minorities by $400 million, and Oracle for having no Black board members or executives. Oracle also faces a separate class action lawsuit based on unequal pay and gender.

Why these companies? According to the complaints, “[i]f Oracle simply disclosed that it does not want any Black individuals on its Board, it would be racist but honest…” and  “[a]t Facebook, apparently Zuckerberg wants Blacks to be seen but not heard.” Counsel Bottini explained, “when you actually go back and look at these proxy statements and what they’ve filed with the SEC, they’re actually lying to shareholders.”

I’m not going to discuss the merits of these cases. Instead, for great analysis, please see here written by attorneys at my old law firm Cleary Gottlieb. I’ll do some actual legal analysis during my CLE presentation at the University of Tennessee Transactions conference on October 16th.

Instead, I’m going to make this a little more personal. I’m used to being the only Black person and definitely the only Black woman in the room. It’s happened in school, at work, on academic panels, and in organizations. When I testified before Congress on a provision of Dodd-Frank, a Black Congressman who grilled me mercilessly during my testimony came up to me afterwards to tell me how rare it was to see a Black woman testify about anything, much less corporate issues. He expressed his pride. For these reasons, as a Black woman in the corporate world, I’m conflicted about these lawsuits. Do corporations need to do more? Absolutely. Is litigation the right mechanism? I don’t know.

What will actually change? Whether or not these cases ever get past motions to dismiss, the defendant companies are likely to take some action. They will add the obligatory Black board members and executives. They will donate to various “woke” causes. They will hire diversity consultants. Indeed, many of my colleagues who have done diversity, equity, and inclusion work for years are busier than they have ever been with speaking gigs and training engagements. But what will actually change in the long term for Black employees, consumers, suppliers, and communities?

When a person is hired or appointed as the “token,” especially after a lawsuit, colleagues often believe that the person is under or unqualified. The new hire or appointee starts under a cloud of suspicion and sometimes resentment. Many eventually resign or get pushed out. Ironically, I personally know several diversity officers who have left their positions with prestigious companies because they were hired as window dressing. Although I don’t know Morgan Stanley’s first Chief Diversity Officer, Marilyn Booker, her story is familiar to me, and she has now filed suit against her own company alleging racial bias.

So I’ll keep an eye on what these defendants and other companies do. Actions speak louder than words. I don’t think that shareholder derivative suits are necessarily the answer, but at least they may prompt more companies to have meaningful conversations that go beyond hashtag activism.

August 14, 2020 in Ann Lipton, Compliance, Consulting, Corporate Governance, Corporate Personality, Corporations, CSR, Current Affairs, Delaware, Financial Markets, Management, Marcia Narine Weldon, Shareholders, Stefan J. Padfield | Permalink | Comments (0)

Friday, July 24, 2020

Do Black Entrepreneurs Matter?

Yesterday, I had the pleasure of moderating a panel of Black entrepreneurs sponsored by the Miami Finance Forum, a group of finance, investment management, banking, capital markets, private equity, venture capital, legal, accounting and related professionals. When every company and law firm was posting about Black Lives Matter and donating to various causes, my colleague Richard Montes de Oca, an MFF board member, decided that he wanted to do more than post a generic message. He and the MFF board decided to launch a series of webinars on Black entrepreneurship. The first panel featured Jamarlin Martin, who runs a digital media company and has a podcast; Brian Brackeen, GP of Lightship Capital and founder of Kairos, a facial recognition tech company;  and Raoul Thomas, CEO of CGI Merchant Group, a real estate private equity group.

These panelists aren't the typical Black entrepreneurs. Here are some sobering statistics:

  • Black-owned business get their initial financing through 44% cash; 15% family and friends; 9% line of credit; 7% unsecured loans; and 3% SBA loans;
  • Between February and April 2020, 41% of Black-owned businesses, 33% of Latinx businesses, and 26% of Asian-owned businesses closed while 17% of White-owned business closed;
  • As of 2019, the overwhelming majority of businesses in majority Black and Hispanic neighborhoods did not have enough cash on hand to pay for two weeks worth of bills;
  • The Center for Responsible Lending noted that in April, 95% of Black-owned businesses were tiny companies with slim change of achieving loans in the initial rounds of the Paycheck Protection Program;
  • Only 12% of Black and Hispanic business owners polled between April 30-May 12 had received the funding they requested from the stimulus program. In contrast half of all small business had received PPP funds in the same poll.

Because we only had an hour for the panel, we didn't cover as much as I would have liked on those statistics. Here's what we did discuss:

  • the failure of boards of directors and companies to do meaningful work around diversity and inclusion- note next week,  I will post about the spate of shareholder derivative actions filed against companies for false statements about diversity commitments;
  • the perceptions of tokenism and "shallow, ambiguous" diversity initiatives;
  • how to get business allies of all backgrounds;
  • the need for more than trickle down initiatives where the people at the bottom of the corporation/society don't reap benefits;
  • the fact that investing in Black venture capitalists does not mean that those Black VCs will invest in Black entrepreneurs and the need for more transparency and accountability; 
  • whether the Black middle class still exists and the responsibility of wealthier Black professionals to provide mentorship and resources;
  • why it's easier for entrepreneurs to get investments for products vs. services, and a hack to convince VCs to invest in the service;
  • whether a great team can make up for a so-so product when a VC hears a pitch; 
  • why there are so many obstacles to being a Black LGBTQ entrepreneur and how to turn it to an advantage when pitching; and
  • whether reparations will actually help Black entrepreneurs and communities.

If you want to hear the answers to these questions, click here for access to the webinar. Stay safe and wear your masks!

July 24, 2020 in Corporations, CSR, Current Affairs, Entrepreneurship, Family Business, Management, Marcia Narine Weldon, Private Equity, Service, Shareholders, Technology, Venture Capital | Permalink | Comments (0)

Tuesday, July 14, 2020

"Reopening Justly or Just Reopening?"

Earlier today (July 14), Fordham University hosted a webinar entitled Reopening Justly or Just Reopening: Catholic Social Teaching, Universities & COVID-19.   

Speakers on the topic of the ethics of reopening schools include the following theology professors: 

Christine Firer Hinze discussed Catholic Social Thought, human dignity, and solidarity. She reminded us that reopening universities is literally a question of life and death, but is also a question of livelihood. Gerald Beyer stressed looking to the the latest science and considering the common good (the flourishing of all). Craig Ford commented on the reality that some universities may be facing financial collapse, that the pandemic is likely to be with us for a long while, and that there are no perfect solutions. Ford also suggested a focus on protecting those who are most vulnerable. Kate Ward talked about moral injury, lamentation, and redemption. A question and answer period --- including on the topics of racial justice, transparency, shared sacrifices and mental health --- followed opening remarks.

July 14, 2020 in Business School, Current Affairs, Ethics, Haskell Murray, Human Rights, Management, Religion, Teaching | Permalink | Comments (0)

Wednesday, June 24, 2020

Stakeholder v. Shareholder Capitalism: Bebchuk and Mayer Debate

Tomorrow (6/25/20) at 9am EST, Colin Mayer (Oxford) will debate Lucian Bebchuk (Harvard) on the topic of stakeholder v. shareholder capitalism. 

Oxford is streaming the debate for free here.  

June 24, 2020 in Business Associations, Corporate Governance, Corporations, CSR, Haskell Murray, International Business, Management, Research/Scholarhip, Shareholders | Permalink | Comments (0)

Monday, February 10, 2020

Me, Too and #MeToo: Women in Congress and the Boardroom

My short essay, "Me, Too and #MeToo: Women in Congress and the Boardroom," was recently published in the George Washington Law Review.  The abstract follows.

The “Year of the Woman” (1992) and the year of #MeToo (2018) were landmark years for women in federal congressional elections. Both years also represent significant milestones for women’s roles as U.S. public company directors. In each of these two years, social context was interconnected with these political and corporate gender changes. The relevant social context in 2018 is most clearly defined by public revelations of sexual misconduct involving a significant number of men in positions of political and business power. The relevant social context in 1992 similarly involved specific, highly public disclosures and allegations of sexual misconduct.

These parallels beg many questions. In particular, one may ponder whether the correlation between social context and congressional or public company board elections is coincidence or something more. Apropos of the current era, those of us who focus on corporate board diversity may wonder whether looking at the election of women to Congress and corporate boards in the #MeToo era provides any insights or lessons about female corporate board representation.

This brief Essay examines and comments on possible gender effects of the #MeToo movement on public company board composition in relation to the possible gender effects of the #MeToo movement on the composition of legislative bodies. Although #MeToo has clarified, and perhaps expanded, the salient connections between business issues and women’s issues, those who have the power to elect corporate directors may not fully recognize this connection or other factors as unique values of female corporate board participation. Until additional female membership on corporate boards is substantively valued, swift sustainable changes in the gender makeup of corporate boards may not be realizable without specific, enforceable legal mandates. Although California’s state legislature has taken a bold step in this direction in the #MeToo era, it seems unlikely that additional state legislatures will follow its lead. As a result, the pace of change in corporate board gender composition is likely to continue to be more evolutionary than revolutionary.

I appreciate the opportunity to publish these thoughts generated in connection with a conference held at GWU Law back in 2018.  The conference, "Women and Corporate Governance: A Conference Exploring the Role and Impact of Women in the Governance of Public Corporations," featured a number of super panels.  I had the opportunity to moderate one ("Women as Counsel and Gatekeepers") and publish this piece.

February 10, 2020 in Corporate Governance, Corporations, Current Affairs, Joan Heminway, Management | Permalink | Comments (0)

Friday, July 26, 2019

Sex, Lies, and M&A

I'm at the tail end of teaching my summer transactional lawyering course. Throughout the semester, I've focused my students on the importance of representations, warranties, covenants, conditions, materiality, and knowledge qualifiers. Today I came across an article from Practical Law Company that discussed the use of #MeToo representations in mergers and acquisitions agreements, and I plan to use it as a teaching tool next semester. According to the article, which is behind a firewall so I can't link to it, thirty-nine public merger agreements this year have had such clauses. This doesn't surprise me. Last year I spoke on a webinar regarding #MeToo and touched on the the corporate governance implications and the rise of these so-called "Harvey Weinstein" clauses. 

Generally, according to Practical Law Company, target companies in these agreements represent that: 1) no allegations of sexual harassment or sexual misconduct have been made against a group or class of employees at certain seniority levels; 2) no allegations have been made against  independent contractors; and 3) the company has not entered into any settlement agreements related to these kinds of allegations. The target would list exceptions on a disclosure schedule, presumably redacting the name of the accuser to preserve privacy. These agreements often have a look back,  typically between two and five years with five years being the most common. Interestingly, some agreements include a material adverse effect clause, which favor the target. 

Here's an example of a  representation related to "Labor Matters" from the June 9, 2019 agreement between Salesforce.com, Inc. and Tableau Software, Inc.

b) The Company and each Company Subsidiary are and have been since January 1, 2016 in compliance with all applicable Law respecting labor, employment, immigration, fair employment practices, terms and conditions of employment, workers' compensation, occupational safety, plant closings, mass layoffs, worker classification, sexual harassment, discrimination, exempt and non-exempt status, compensation and benefits, wages and hours and the Worker Adjustment and Retraining Notification Act of 1988, as amended, except where such non-compliance has not had, and would not reasonably be expected to have, individually or in the aggregate, a Company Material Adverse Effect.

c) To the Company's Knowledge, in the last five (5) years, (i) no allegations of sexual harassment have been made against any employee at the level of Vice President or above, and (ii) neither the Company nor any of the Company Subsidiaries have entered into any settlement agreements related to allegations of sexual harassment or misconduct by any employee at the level of Vice President or above.

The agreement has the following relevant definitions:

"Knowledge" will be deemed to be, as the case may be, the actual knowledge of (a) the individuals set forth on Section 1.1(a) of the Parent Disclosure Letter with respect to Parent or Purchaser or (b) the individuals set forth on Section 1.1(a) of the Company Disclosure Letter with respect to the Company, in each case after reasonable inquiry of those employees of such Party and its Subsidiaries who would reasonably be expected to have actual knowledge of the matter in question.

Even though I like the idea of these reps. in theory, I have some concerns.  First, I hate to be nitpicky, but after two decades of practicing employment law on the defense side, I have some questions. What's the definition of "sexual misconduct"? What happens of the company handbook or policies do not define "sexual misconduct"? The Salesforce.com agreement did not define it. So how does the target know what to disclose? Next, how should an agreement define "sexual harassment"? What if the allegation would not pass muster under Title VII or even under  a more flexible, more generous definition in an employee handbook? When I was in house and drafting policies, a lot of crude behavior could be "harassment" even if it wouldn't survive the pleading requirements for a motion to dismiss. Does a company have to disclose an allegation of harassment that's not legally cognizable? And what about the definition of "allegation"? The Salesforce.com agreement did not define this either. Is it an allegation that has been reported through proper channels? Does the target have to go back to all of the executives' current and former managers and HR personnel as a part of due diligence to make sure there were no allegations that were not investigated or reported through proper channels? What if there were rumors? What if there was a conclusively false allegation (it's rare, but I've seen it)? What if the allegation could not be proved through a thorough, best in class investigation? How does the target disclose that without impugning the reputation of the accused? 

Second, I'm not sure why independent contractors would even be included in these representations because they're not the employees of the company. If an independent contractor harassed one of the target's employees, that independent contractor shouldn't even be an issue in a representation because s/he should not be on the premises. Moreover,  the contractor, and not the target company, should be paying any settlement. I acknowledge that a company is responsible for protecting its employees from harassment, including from contractors and vendors. But a company that pays the settlement should ensure that the harasser/contractor can't come near the worksite or employees ever again. If that's the case, why the need for a representation about the contractors? Third, companies often settle for nuisance value or to avoid the cost of litigation even when the investigation results are inconclusive or sometimes before an investigation has ended. How does the company explain that in due diligence? How much detail does the target disclose? Finally, what happens if the company legally destroyed documents as part of an established and enforced document retention and destruction process? Does that excuse disclosure even if someone might have a vague memory of some unfounded allegation five years ago?

But maybe I protest too much. Given the definition of "knowledge" above, in-house and outside counsel for target companies will have to ask a lot more and a lot tougher questions. On the other hand, given the lack of clarity around some of the key terms such as "allegations," "harassment," and "misconduct," I expect there to be some litigation around these #MeToo representations in the future. I'll see if my Fall students can do a better job of crafting definitions than the BigLaw counsel did. 

July 26, 2019 in Compliance, Contracts, Corporate Governance, Corporate Personality, Corporations, Current Affairs, Employment Law, Ethics, Law School, Lawyering, Litigation, M&A, Management, Marcia Narine Weldon, Teaching | Permalink | Comments (0)

Friday, April 12, 2019

Why Businesses Should Not Ignore the Operation Varsity Blues Scandal

As a former compliance officer who is now an academic, I've been obsessed with the $25 million Varsity Blues college admissions scandal. Compliance officers are always looking for titillating stories for training and illustration purposes, and this one has it all-- bribery, Hollywood stars, a BigLaw partner, Instagram influencers, and big name schools. Over fifty people face charges or have already pled guilty, and the fallout will continue for some time. We've seen bribery in the university setting before but those cases concerned recruitment of actual athletes. 

Although Operation Varsity Blues concerns elite colleges, it provides a wake up call for all universities and an even better cautionary tale for businesses of all types that think of  bribery as something that happens overseas. As former Justice Department compliance counsel, Hui Chen, wrote, "bribery. . .  is not an act confined by geographies. Like most frauds, it is a product of motive, opportunity, and rationalization. Where there are power and benefits to be traded, there would be bribes." 

My former colleague and a rising star in the compliance world, AP Capaldo, has some great insights on the scandal in this podcast. I recommend that you listen to it, but if you don't have time, here are some questions that she would ask if doing a post mortem at the named universities. With some tweaks, compliance officers, legal counsel, and auditors for all businesses should consider: 

1) What kind of training does our staff receive? How often?

2) Does it address the issues that are likely to occur in our industry?

3) When was the last time we spot checked these areas for compliance ? In the context of the universities, were these scholarships or set asides within the scope of routine audits or any other internal controls or reviews?

4) What factors or aspects of the culture could contribute to a scandal like this? What are our red flags and blind spots? Do we have a cultural permissiveness that could lead to this? In the context of the implicated universities, who knew or had reason to know?

5) How can we do a values-based analysis? Do we need to rethink our values or put some teeth behind them?

6) How are our resources deployed?

7) Do we have fundamental gaps in our compliance program implementation? Are we too focused on one area or another?

8) Are integrity and hallmarks of compliant behavior part of our selection/hiring process?

Capaldo recommends that universities tap into their internal resources of law and ethics professors who can staff  multidisciplinary task forces to craft programs and curate cultures to ensure measurable improvements in compliance and a decrease in misconduct. I agree. I would add that as members of the law and business community and as alums of universities, we should ask our alma maters or employers whether they have considered these and other hard questions. Finally, as law and business professors, we should use this scandal in both the classroom and the faculty lounge to reinforce the importance of ethics, internal controls, compliance with law, and shared values.

 

April 12, 2019 in Business School, Compliance, Corporate Governance, Corporations, CSR, Current Affairs, Ethics, Law Firms, Law School, Lawyering, Management, Marcia Narine Weldon, Sports, Teaching | Permalink | Comments (0)

Tuesday, February 12, 2019

Vague Operating Agreement or Not, LLCs are Not Limited Partnerships or Corporations

Sometimes, LLC cases are a mess. It is often hard to tell whether the court is misstating something, whether the LLCs (and their counsel) are just sloppy, or both.  My money, most of the time is on "both." 

Consider this recent Louisiana opinion (my comments inserted): 

The defendant, Riverside Drive Partners, LLC (“Riverside”) appeals the district court judgment denying its motion for a new trial related to its order of January 8, 2018, dismissing all pending claims against three parties in this multiparty litigation: (1) CCNO McDonough 16, LLC (“CCNO”); (2) R4 MCNO Acquisition LLC (“R4”); and (3) Joseph A. Stebbins, II. After review of the record in light of the applicable law and arguments of the parties, the district court judgment is affirmed. . . .

This litigation arises out of a dispute among partners in a real estate development related to the conversion of an existing historic building into an affordable housing complex. Pursuant to the Operating Agreement signed on September 30, 2013, McDonough 16, LLC, was formed to acquire, rehabilitate, and ultimately lease and operate a multi-family apartment project consisting of the historic building and a new construction building. In turn, McDonough 16, LLC had two members, also limited liability entities: (1) the “Managing Member,” CCNO [an LLC] and (2), the “Investor Member,” R4, a Delaware limited liability company with its principal place of business in New York. [Who cares? Jurisdiction of the LLC is based on the citizenship of the LLC member(s).] Likewise, CCNO had two limited liability partnerships as members: (1) CCNO Partners 2, LLC, [thus not an LLP, but and LLC] which was formed by two members who were residents of and domiciled in Orleans Parish: Mr. Stebbins and Michael Mattax; and (2) the appellant, Riverside, a Florida limited liability company [also not an LLP] with its principal place of business in Florida whose sole member, Jack Hammer, is a resident of and domiciled in Georgia. Iberia Bank was lender for the project.

CCNO McDonough 16, LLC v. R4 MCNO Acquisition, LLC, 2018-0490 (La. App. 4 Cir. 11/14/18), 259 So. 3d 1077, 1078 (comments and emphasis added)

The issue was whether Riverside, LLC, as a member of CCNO, was needed to agree for CCNO to enter a settlement agreement. The court noted,

Section 3. 13 of the CCNO Operating Agreement provides:
Overall Management Vested in Members and Managers. Except as expressly provided otherwise in this Operating Agreement or otherwise agreed in writing at a meeting, management of the Company is vested in the Members in proportion to their initial Capital Contributions, and every Member is hereby made a Manager. All powers of the Company are exercised by or under the authority of the Managers and Members and the business and affairs of the Company are managed under the direction of the Members and Managers. The Managers may engage in other activities of any nature. (Emphasis added).
CCNO McDonough 16, LLC v. R4 MCNO Acquisition, LLC, 2018-0490 (La. App. 4 Cir. 11/14/18), 259 So. 3d 1077, 1079.  One thing not clear from the case is the CCNO is a Louisiana LLC, which I was able to find out via a Louisiana commercial entity search. Louisiana LLC law, by default, provides that members manage the business unless the operating agreement says otherwise.  The operating agreement appears to confirm the members as managers. My read of this provision would be that this provision makes management subject to a vote. That is, I read "management of the Company is vested in the Members in proportion to their initial Capital Contributions" to mean management is decided by a vote in proportion to capital contributions.  It is not intended to mean, I don't think, that actual management is divided by voting rights (e.g., that Member A with 60% voting interest makes 60% of the decisions and Member B with 40% makes 40% of the decisions). If management is by vote, it would appear that CCNO, with at least 60% of the voting interest, could proceed to settlelment without Riverside, LLC. 
 
However, the opinion goes on to explain:
In addition, the CCNO Operating Agreement defines “Majority in Interest” as “any referenced group of Managers, Members or persons who are both, a combination who, in aggregate, own more than fifty percent (50%) of the Membership Interests owned by all of such referenced group of Managers and Members.” Notably, Section 2.05 of the CCNO Operating Agreement specifically provides that any amendment to the agreement requires the approval of the beneficiary of any mortgage lien, i.e., Iberia Bank.
Riverside does not dispute that it owns less than fifty per cent of the CCNO shares or that CCNO Partners 2, of which Mr. Stebbins is a member, owns proportionally more of the membership interest in CCNO. Rather, Riverside asserts that this does not matter because, although the CCNO Operating Agreement clearly established CCNO Partners 2 owned 66.67% of CCNO (and, concomitantly, that Riverside only 33.33%), a subsequent amendment altered the proportion of ownership to 60% (CCNO Partners 2) and 40% (Riverside) and redefined “Majority in Interest” to mean “more than 60%,” thereby making any settlement agreement reached without the appellant's consent invalid.
CCNO McDonough 16, LLC v. R4 MCNO Acquisition, LLC, 2018-0490 (La. App. 4 Cir. 11/14/18), 259 So. 3d 1077, 1079–80.
 
Though this lacks some context, it appears that the court is saying that in defining "Majority in Interest," the operating agreement was telling us what vote was needed to "manage" the LLC.  That might make sense, in that initially the agreement gave CCNO the power to manage because it had more than 50% of the voting interest. Then, apparently, there was an amendment to make a majority vote 60%+1, if properly executed, would have required Riverside's consent to settle. However, the operating agreement also required the mortgage lien beneficiary to approve any amendment, which was not apparently done.  
 
This all seems like it is likely the right outcome, but it sure is hard to piece together. Perhaps all LLC cases should require the court to attach the operating agreement to the opinion. After all, LLC decisions are largely driven by the operating agreement, so it would be helpful for all of us trying to learn from the case to have the full context.  

Two closing thoughts:

  1. Jack Hammer as an LLC member of a construction-focused entity sounds like one of my exam characters. Awesome. 
  2. Westlaw's synopsis states: "Managing member of limited liability corporation (LLC) brought action against investor member to enjoin removal as manager."  No. An LLC is a limited liability company, not a corporation. (Regular readers had to see that coming.)
  3. LLCs are not limited partnerships, either, even if they are structured similarly or even use the term "partner."  An LLC is a separate and unique entity.  Really. 

February 12, 2019 in Corporations, Joshua P. Fershee, Litigation, LLCs, Management | Permalink | Comments (0)

Sunday, October 21, 2018

5th Conference of the French Academy of Legal Studies in Business - June 20-21 - Paris

5th Conference of the French Academy of Legal Studies in Business (Association Française Droit et Management)

June 20 and 21, 2019 – emlyon - Paris Campus

CALL FOR PAPERS 2019 Social Issues in Firms

Social issues and fundamental rights occupy an increasingly important space in the governance of today’s companies. Private enterprises assume an increasingly active role not only in a given economy but also in society as a whole. Firms become themselves citizens. They recognize and support civic engagement by the men and women who work for them. Historically, the role of the modern firm that resulted from the Industrial Revolution has been torn between two opposing viewpoints.

[More information under the break.]

Continue reading

October 21, 2018 in Business Associations, Business School, Call for Papers, Conferences, Corporate Governance, Corporations, Ethics, Haskell Murray, International Business, International Law, Management, Research/Scholarhip | Permalink | Comments (0)

Tuesday, September 25, 2018

No Need to Be Judgmental: Last Thoughts on the Business Judgmenty Nike Ad

I was going to move on to other topics after two recent posts about Nike's Kaepernick Ad, but I decided I had a little more to say on the topic.  My prior posts, Nike's Kaepernick Ad Is the Most Business Judgmenty Thing Ever and Delegation of Board Authority: Nike's Kaepernick Ad Remains the Most Business Judgmenty Thing Ever explain my view that Nike's decision to run a controversial ad is the essence of the exercise of business judgment.  Some people seem to believe that by merely making a controversial decision, the board should subject to review and required to justify its actions.  I don't agree. I need more.   

First, I came across a case (an unreported Delaware case) that had language that was simply too good for me to pass up in this context:

The plaintiffs have pleaded no facts to undermine the presumption that the outside directors of the board . . . failed to fully inform itself in deciding how best to proceed . . . . Instead, the complaint essentially states that the plaintiffs would have run things differently. The business judgment rule, however, is not rebutted by Monday morning quarterbacking. In the absence of well pleaded allegations of director interest or self-dealing, failure to inform themselves, or lack of good faith, the business decisions of the board are not subject to challenge because in hindsight other choices might have been made instead.

In re Affliated Computer Servs., Inc. Shareholders Litig., No. CIV.A. 2821-VCL, 2009 WL 296078, at *10 (Del. Ch. Feb. 6, 2009) (unreported). 
 
Absolutely, positively, spot on.  (I'll note, again, that Nike's stock is up, not down since the ad. That shouldn't matter as to the inquiry, but it further supports why we have the business judgment rule in the first place.) 
 
Next, the good Professor Bainbridge posted yesterday, I hate to break it to Josh Fershee but "Judgmenty" is not a word. He is, of course, correct. But, I couldn't leave it there. I decided to double down on my use of the admittedly ridiculous "judgmenty."  My claim:
Ever the good sport, the good professor replied: 

So it appears. 

September 25, 2018 in Corporate Governance, Corporate Personality, Corporations, Delaware, Joshua P. Fershee, Management, Sports | Permalink | Comments (2)

Tuesday, September 18, 2018

Delegation of Board Authority: Nike's Kaepernick Ad Remains the Most Business Judgmenty Thing Ever

Last week, I made the argument that Nike's Kaepernick Ad Is the Most Business Judgmenty Thing Ever.  I still think so.  

To build on that post (in part based on good comments I received on that post), I think it is worth exploring that ability and appropriateness of boards delegating certain duties, as this impacts any assessment of the business judgment rule. 

As co-blogger Stefan Padfield correctly noted, directors "become informed of all material information reasonably available." However, does that apply to a particular ad campaign? Hiring of all spokespeople? Only certain ones? How about a particular ad?  Or is it the hiring of a marketing and ad team (internally or externally)? 

Nike has a long list of sponsorship (here) for teams and individuals. I sincerely doubt that all of those were run by the board of directors, though it is possible.  The board may also weigh in from time to time, based on the behavior of the people they sponsor.  Nike famously terminated contracts with Oscar Pistorius and Ray Rice in September 2014. Are these all board decisions? Maybe. Or maybe they have a protocol for dealing with such issues. Regardless, how they deal with this seems plainly within the BJR.  

Now, I also would agree that there comes a time when the board would need to do more with regard to their advertising and sponsorships, if they were on notice of a problem with their sponsored athletes, not unlike a Caremark duty or its predecessor. In discussing the applicability of the business judgment rule, an older, but classic, Delaware case stated, “it appears that directors are entitled to rely on the honesty and integrity of their subordinates until something occurs to put them on suspicion that something is wrong. If such occurs and goes unheeded, [only] then liability of the directors might well follow . . . “ Graham v. Allis-Chalmers Mfg. Co., 41 Del. Ch. 78, 85, 188 A.2d 125, 130 (1963). 

When I started to write this, I did not know if Nike's board of directors saw this ad before it went out (more on that below). I expect they did (or at least knew about it), but I'm not sure.  Even it if the ad were raised with the board for informational purposes, trusting the judgment and recommendation of your marketing executives seems imminently reasonable to me. It seems to me that how the board chooses to work with their marketing people fall plainly under the business judgment rule (BJR) unless shareholders can rebut the presumption that the BJR applies.  It's not like marketing mistakes are not common. Most years there are recap articles about the works gaffes in marketing for the year. This one from 2017 is a particularly good example, and I don't think any of them would be likely to lead to director liability.  

The scope and power of board delegation of such duties would be a good topic for further research. I certainly concede that there are times when such decisions look more like board decisions that require an appropriate process and perhaps some demonstration of due care.  Maybe that goes to a need to review ads with certain risk factors, but you'd still have to delegate the decision about what needs to come to the board to someone.  And do you need such a process absent notice that your ad folks are taking enormous risks?  Is this a Caremark/Allis-Chalmers issue? Or could negligent hiring be the failure, if the ad folks are insane? 

Support for my assumptions, and for the idea that Nike, at least, views this as a delegation question, arrived in this breaking news from CNBC, which appeared as I was writing this blog post:  

Nike director Beth Comstock said Tuesday that the sports apparel giant's management and CEO Mark Parker informed the board about the controversial Colin Kaepernick ad before it was released.

But Comstock, also a former vice chair of General Electric, said Parker didn't need the board's permission before running a "Just Do It" campaign featuring the former San Francisco 49ers quarterback.

"Parker runs the company really well," Comstock said on CNBC's "Squawk on the Street," while also commenting about the new China tariffs. Parker "certainly doesn't need board approval to figure out where to run an ad," she added.

In the end, we know marketing decisions can harm stock prices, but we also know risky marketing decisions can improve stock prices.  That very fact, I maintain, puts this decision squarely in the BJR zone.  

September 18, 2018 in Corporations, Current Affairs, Joshua P. Fershee, Management, Marketing | Permalink | Comments (3)

Thursday, September 13, 2018

Nike's Kaepernick Ad Is the Most Business Judgmenty Thing Ever

On Sept. 4, it was reported 

Nike just lost about $3.75 billion in market cap after announcing free agent NFL quarterback Colin Kaepernick as the new face of its “Just Do It” ad campaign. It’s the 30th anniversary of the iconic TV and print spots.

At the time of this writing, the sneaker company’s intra-day market capitalization was $127.82 billion. On Friday, that number had been $131.57 billion.

Market capitalization is the market value of a publicly traded company’s outstanding shares.

Shares of NKE stock dropped about 4 percent on Tuesday morning, as #NikeBoycott has been trending on Twitter. The company’s valuation has since recovered a bit.

In light of the market cap loss, friend and co-blogger Stefan Padfield asked, via Twitter, "How much & what kind of information regarding projected backlash losses did Nike need to review in order to satisfy its duty of care to shareholders here?" My answer: very, very little and very, very limited.  

Now, it is worth noting that here it is Sept. 13, and as I write this, Nike is at or near its 52-week high. As such, the question is less pressing than it may have seemed a week ago.  But even then, I maintain, this is not really even in the realm of a duty of care concern. Or, at least, it shouldn't be. (Also of potential interest, friend and co-blogger Ann Lipton provides a good overview of the varying takes on the ad here

A while back I wrote, This I Believe: On Corporate Purpose and the Business Judgment Rule, which provided my thoughts on how director )ecision making should be viewed (short answer: "I believe in the theory of Director Primacy").  The business judgment rule provides that absent fraud, self-dealing or illegality, directors decisions cannot be reviewed. "Courts do not measure, weigh or quantify directors’ judgments. We do not even decide if they are reasonable in this context. Due care in the decisionmaking context is process due care only. Irrationality is the outer limit of the business judgment rule." Brehm v Eisner, 746 A.2d 244 (Del. 2000)(emphasis added)(footnote omitted).     

Under this lens, regardless of the market cap impact, Nike's advertising falls within the scope of the business judgment rule. Did the board even know this ad was coming out? I don't know.  Probably. But I also think it is clearly proper for the board to delegate duties to CEO to handle day-to-day operations. And it is customary and proper for that CEO to delegate to a marketing VP and/or marketing agency the role of designing and placing advertising. Could the CEO and/or marketing VP get fired for their choices? Sure. Or they could get bonuses. Either way, that would be the call of the directors.  

I can come up with lots of reasons why Nike should not have done that ad, and I can come up with a lot of good reasons why it makes sense.  The biggest reason it makes sense? Nike knows marketing.  They won't get everything right, but they have been taking calculated risks for a long time. In 1992, the Harvard Business Review noted that

in the mid-1980s, Nike lost its footing, and the company was forced to make a subtle but important shift. Instead of putting the product on center stage, it put the consumer in the spotlight and the brand under a microscope—in short, it learned to be marketing oriented. Since then, Nike has resumed its domination of the athletic shoe industry. It commands 29% of the market, and sales for fiscal 1991 topped $3 billion.

Phil Knight, Nike founder, futher explained how Nike looked at using famous athletes:

The trick is to get athletes who not only can win but can stir up emotion. We want someone the public is going to love or hate, not just the leading scorer. Jack Nicklaus was a better golfer than Arnold Palmer, but Palmer was the better endorsement because of his personality.

To create a lasting emotional tie with consumers, we use the athletes repeatedly throughout their careers and present them as whole people. So consumers feel that they know them. It’s not just Charles Barkley saying buy Nike shoes, it’s seeing who Charles Barkley is—and knowing that he’s going to punch you in the nose. We take the time to understand our athletes, and we have to build long-term relationships with them. Those relationships go beyond any financial transactions. John McEnroe and Joan Benoit wear our shoes everyday, but it’s not the contract. We like them and they like us. We win their hearts as well as their feet.

Read in this light, it all makes sense. This is part of Nike's plan, and it always has been. Presumably, they expect that any business they lose because consumers are upset by the ads will be made up and then some by creating a "lasting emotional tie with consumers."  That is, creating what we might call brand loyalty.

Not that is should matter to a court. While these explanations may be correct, they aren't necessary.  The business judgment rule exists to allow companies, via their directors, to take these kinds of risks. It's how you create companies like Nike (and Apple, for that matter). And that's why there should be no question that this ad is beyond the scope of review, not matter how the public responds. If consumers don't like it, they can buy other products. If shareholders don't like it, they can vote the board out.  And that's it.  That's the recourse. It just doesn't get much more "business judgmenty" than who you pick for your ads.  And that's exactly how it should be.  

September 13, 2018 in Corporations, Joshua P. Fershee, Management, Marketing | Permalink | Comments (3)

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)

Tuesday, June 19, 2018

Respecting Time and Space May Lead to Better Management and Better Outcomes

An interesting new article appears in the Chronicle of Higher Education:  What Happened When the Dean’s Office Stopped Sending Emails After-Hours, by Andrew D. Martin, dean of the College of Literature, Science, and the Arts at the University of Michigan and a professor of political science and statistics, and Anne Curzan associate dean for humanities and a professor of English. Interesting concept, and an idea worth considering.  Here's what they tried: 

What if we experimented with a policy that set some limits in the dean’s office? Here’s what we came up with:

  • Limit email traffic to working hours. Except for emergencies, work emails are to be sent between the hours of 7 a.m. and 6 p.m., Monday through Friday. Use the delayed-send function to ensure that emails to and from people working in the dean’s office arrive only within that window.
  • Try to communicate in person. Whenever possible, associate and assistant deans should communicate with one another and with other professional staff employees in person or by telephone during the business day. Our administrative assistants can help us find quick drop-in times.
  • Avoid email forwarding. Refrain from forwarding an email to chairs and directors and asking them to forward it to others. When possible, send it yourself directly to the audience you want to communicate with.
  • Respect working hours. The dean and the associate and assistant deans should not expect — or request — support from professional staff employees outside of the 7 a.m. to 6 p.m. window. An exception is for emergencies, and then only from salaried staff members.

The authors say the rules became part of the dean's office's culture, and although it was not enforced, it is largely followed and has led to more efficient and effective work.  

I have to admit, I think it would be hard, and I am notoriously bad for being almost tethered to my email. But I can also see why it would help.  I feel absolutely compelled to reply to inquiries and requests. Sometimes I resist the urge to do so, but even then, my mental space has been taken up by obligations.  It's not ideal. More important, it means that when I am sending emails after hours, I am getting into other people's space when it is not necessary.  Emergencies are one thing, and they happen, but I can definitely do a better job of staying out of people's personal time, and I am going to give it a try. 

June 19, 2018 in Jobs, Joshua P. Fershee, Management | Permalink | Comments (2)

Monday, May 7, 2018

Yes, Ann. I believe that CEOs have private lives . . . .

I was fascinated by Ann Lipton's post on April 14.  I started to type a comment, but it got too long.  That's when I realized it was actually a responsive blog post.  

Ann's post, which posits (among other things) that corporate chief executives might be required to comply with their fiduciary duties when they are acting in their capacity as private citizens, really made me think.  I understand her concern.  I do think it is different from the disclosure duty issues that I and others scope out in prior work.  (Thanks for the shout-out on that, Ann.)  Yet, I struggled to find a concise and effective response to Ann's post. Here is what I have come up with so far.  It may be inadequate, but it's a start, at least.

Fiduciary duties are contextual.  One can have fiduciary duties to more than one independent legal person at the same time, of course, proving this point. (Think of those overlapping directors, Arledge and Chitiea in Weinberger.  They're a classic example!)  What enables folks to know how to act in these situations is a proper identification of the circumstances in which the person is acting.

So, for example, an agent’s duty to a principal exists for actions taken within the scope of the agency relationship. The agency relationship is defined by the terms of the agreement between principal and agent as to the object of the agency. The principal controls the actions of the agent within those bounds based on that agreement.

Similarly, a director’s or officer's conduct is prescribed and proscribed within the four corners of the terms of their service to the corporation. They owe their duties to the corporation (and in Revlon-land or other direct-duty situations, also to the stockholders). The problem then becomes defining those terms of service. For directors, a quest for evidence of the parameters of their service should start with the statute and extend to any applicable provisions of the corporate charter, bylaws, and board policies and resolutions more generally. For officers, the statute typically doesn’t provide much content on the nature or extent of their services. The charter may not either. Typically, the bylaws and board policies and resolutions, as well as any employment or severance agreement (the validity of which is largely a matter outside the scope of corporate law), would define the scope of service of an officer.

I have trouble envisioning that the scope of service (and therefore, reach of fiduciary duties) for a typical director or officer would extend to, e.g., private ownership of other entities and decisions made in that capacity.  Yet, even where there is no technical conflicting interest or breach of a duty of loyalty, there is a clear business interest in having corporate managers—especially highly visible ones—act in a manner that is consistent with corporate policy or values when they are not “on the job.”  While voluntary corporate policy or private regulation may have a role in policing that kind of director or officer activity (through service qualifications or employment termination triggers, e.g.), I do not think it is or should be the job of corporate law—including fiduciary duty law—to take on that monitoring and enforcement role.

Nevertheless, I remain convinced that better (more accurate ad complete) disclosure of (at least) inherent conflicts of interest may be needed so investors and other stakeholders can evaluate the potential for undesirable conduct that may impact the nature or value of their investments in the firm.  As Ann notes, significant privacy rights exist in this context, too.  There's more work to be done here, imv.

Thanks for making me think, Ann.  Perhaps you (or others) have a comment on this riposte?  We shall see . . . .

May 7, 2018 in Ann Lipton, Business Associations, Corporate Governance, Corporations, Joan Heminway, Management | Permalink | Comments (4)

Tuesday, April 10, 2018

Preventing CEO Distraction by Restricting Outside Board Service

Last week, the Neel Corporate Governance Center at UT Knoxville hosted one of UT Knoxville's alums, Ron Ford, as a featured speaker.  He gave a great talk on boards of directors, from his unique vantage point--that of a CFO.  In the course of his remarks, he mentioned a public company corporate gpvernance policy that I had not earlier heard of: a CEO limit or prohibition on outside board service (other than local, small nonprofit board service).  A 2017 study found that:

Only 22% of S&P 500 boards set a specific limit in their corporate governance guidelines on the CEO’s outside board service; 65% of those boards limit CEOs to two outside boards, and 32% set the limit at one outside board. One board does not allow the company CEO to serve on any outside corporate boards, and two boards allow their CEO to serve on three outside corporate boards.

This may be why I had not heard about governance policies limiting board service; it seems these policies may be relatively uncommon.  I know from experience that CEOs do serve on outside boards and often consider that service an important way to learn valuable things that can be implemented at the firm that enjoys them.

What is the ostensible purpose of a policy restricting the outside board service of a firm's CEO?  Perhaps it is obvious.  It seems that most firms imposing this kind of restriction on CEOs desire to prevent the CEO from spending significant time on his or her service as a board member of another firm to the detriment of the firm by which he or she is employed as chief executive.  An online article succinctly captures the capacity for distraction.

. . . CEOs must weigh . . . the potential disadvantage of having to navigate a crisis. David Larcker, a professor at Stanford Law School and senior faculty at the university’s corporate governance center, says that while most CEOs would say that serving on an outside board is highly valuable, everything changes if either company comes up against a big challenge.

“Where it gets really complicated for a sitting CEO is if something happens,” Larcker says. “You’re a takeover target. You have a big restatement. You’re replacing a CEO. That’s harder to predict and takes up a lot of time.”

Are there CEOs who have experienced this kind of distraction?  Yes.  A Forbes contributor offers a well-known example in an article entitled "All Operating Executives Should Never Serve On Any Outside Boards":

A good poster child of outside board distractions was Meg Whitman in her final 2 years at the helm of eBay (EBAY). During this time, she joined the boards of Proctor & Gamble and DreamWorks Animation. EBay flew Meg around to Cincinnati and LA board meetings on their private jet. EBay's stock sank. Meg bought Skype. It didn't help.

The same article also calls out two Yahoo! CEOs as further examples.  And there are others.  See also, e.g.here.

Continue reading

April 10, 2018 in Corporate Governance, Corporations, Joan Heminway, Management | Permalink | Comments (2)

Tuesday, February 13, 2018

These Reasons Social Benefit Entities Hurt Business and Philanthropy Will Blow Your Mind

I suspect click-bait headline tactics don't work for business law topics, but I guess now we will see. This post is really just to announce that I have a new paper out in Transactions: The Tennessee Journal of Business Law related to our First Annual (I hope) Business Law Prof Blog Conference co-blogger Joan Heminway discussed here. The paper, The End of Responsible Growth and Governance?: The Risks Posed by Social Enterprise Enabling Statutes and the Demise of Director Primacy, is now available here.

To be clear, my argument is not that I don't like social enterprise. My argument is that as well-intentioned as social enterprise entity types are, they are not likely to facilitate social enterprise, and they may actually get in the way of social-enterprise goals.  I have been blogging about this specifically since at least 2014 (and more generally before that), and last year I made this very argument on a much smaller scale.  Anyway, I hope you'll forgive the self-promotion and give the paper a look.  Here's the abstract: 

Social benefit entities, such as benefit corporations and low-profit limited liability companies (or L3Cs) were designed to support and encourage socially responsible business. Unfortunately, instead of helping, the emergence of social enterprise enabling statutes and the demise of director primacy run the risk of derailing large-scale socially responsible business decisions. This could have the parallel impacts of limiting business leader creativity and risk taking. In addition to reducing socially responsible business activities, this could also serve to limit economic growth. Now that many states have alternative social enterprise entity structures, there is an increased risk that traditional entities will be viewed (by both courts and directors) as pure profit vehicles, eliminating directors’ ability to make choices with the public benefit in mind, even where the public benefit is also good for business (at least in the long term). Narrowing directors’ decision making in this way limits the options for innovation, building goodwill, and maintaining an engaged workforce, all to the detriment of employees, society, and, yes, shareholders.

The potential harm from social benefit entities and eroding director primacy is not inevitable, and the challenges are not insurmountable. This essay is designed to highlight and explain these risks with the hope that identifying and explaining the risks will help courts avoid them. This essay first discusses the role and purpose of limited liability entities and explains the foundational concept of director primacy and the risks associated with eroding that norm. Next, the essay describes the emergence of social benefit entities and describes how the mere existence of such entities can serve to further erode director primacy and limit business leader discretion, leading to lost social benefit and reduced profit making. Finally, the essay makes a recommendation about how courts can help avoid these harms.

February 13, 2018 in Business Associations, Corporate Governance, Corporate Personality, Corporations, CSR, Current Affairs, Delaware, Joshua P. Fershee, Law and Economics, Lawyering, Legislation, LLCs, Management, Research/Scholarhip, Shareholders, Social Enterprise, Unincorporated Entities | Permalink | Comments (0)

Tuesday, February 6, 2018

LLCs Still Not Corporations, But What Are Managers?

A brand new Arizona case continues the trend of incorrectly discussing limited liability companies (LLCs) as limited liability corporations, but it does allow for an interesting look at how entities are sometimes treated (or not) in laws and regulations. Here’s the opening paragraph of the case:

Noah Sensibar appeals from the superior court's ruling affirming the Tucson City Court's finding that he had violated the Tucson City Code (TCC). He argues that the municipal ordinance in question is facially invalid because it conflicts with a state statute shielding members or agents of a limited liability corporation from personal liability. 

City of Tucson v. Noah Sensibar, No. 2 CA-CV 2017-0087, 2018 WL 703319 (Ariz. Ct. App. Feb. 5, 2018).

About three years ago, the City of Tucson alleged that Sensibar, as “the managing member and statutory agent of Blue Jay Real Estate LLC, an Arizona corporation, was responsible for building code violations.” Id. (emphasis added). Notwithstanding the incorrect characterization of the entity type, it looks like the court at least reasonable (though not clearly correct) to hold Sensibar individually liable.  Here’s why:

The Tuscon City Code states that “Any owner or responsible party who commits, causes, permits, facilitates or aids or abets any violation of any provision of this chapter . . . is responsible for a civil infraction and is subject to a civil sanction of not less than one hundred dollars ($100.00) nor more than two thousand five hundred dollars ($2,500.00).” Tucson Code Sec. 16-48(2) (Violations and penalties).

The Code Definitions in Sec. 16-3 provide the following:

Owner means, as applied to a building, structure, or land, any part owner, joint owner, tenant in common, joint tenant or tenant by the entirety of the whole or a part of such building, structure or land.

. . . .

Person means any natural person, firm, partnership, association, corporation, company or organization of any kind, but not the federal government, state, county, city or political subdivision of the state.

. . .  .

Responsible party means an occupant, lessor, lessee, manager, licensee, or person having control over a structure or parcel of land; and in any case where the demolition of a structure is proposed as a means of abatement, any lienholder whose lien is recorded in the official records of the Pima County Recorder's Office.

As such, the Code seems to contemplate holding both entities and individuals liable. Still, Sensibar had an argument. The use of the term “manager” here causes some potential confusion because one can be a manager of an LLC, while the LLC might serve as the manager of the property. Thus, it could be that only the LLC should be liable.  Another plausible reading, though, is that “manager” meant the natural person doing the managing as is common in property situations.  Manager, like occupant, lessee, and lessor, is not defined in the Code, so it would seem the intended source of the definitions should be from a property perspective, not an entity perspective.

Similarly, the Code could mean a natural “person having control over a structure” can be liable.  If that’s the case, and the court seems to have gone down this road, the argument would be that Sensibar was being held liable directly for his role as manager or person in control of the property and not vicariously for violations of the LLC.  Given that occupants, lessors, and lessees, among others, can be held liable, it does appear that the Code could have intended to impose liability directly on multiple parties, including both individuals and entities. This would be sensible, in many contexts, though it would also be sensible to say explicitly, especially given that the term “person” clearly includes entities. 

A simple improvement might be to update the definition of “responsible party,” as follows:

Responsible party means an, whether as an individual or entity, any occupant, lessor, lessee, manager, licensee, or person having control over a structure or parcel of land and in any case where the demolition of a structure is proposed as a means of abatement, any lienholder whose lien is recorded in the official records of the Pima County Recorder's Office.

That would, at least, be consistent with the decision. Because if the court is holding Sensibar liable for merely being the manager of the LLC, and not as the manager of the property, the case is wrongly decided.  Too bad the notice of appeal was not timely filed – maybe we could have found out. 

UPDATE: Based on a good comment from Tom N., I did a little more research. As of an LLC filing in 2009, Noah Sensibar owned at least a 20% interest. (It may be 50% because there were two listed members, but it was at least 20%.) As such, this suggests that the LLC does not have funding to cover the fines or that express indemnification is lacking and the other member(s) won't agree to cover the costs from LLC funds. 

I will also note that a 2016 decision denying Sensibar's appeal stated, "The court also heard evidence that Sensibar, the managing partner of the LLC, was 'the person in charge' of the property."  City of Tucson v. Sensibar, No. 2 CA-CV 2016-0051, 2016 WL 5899737, at *1 (Ariz. Ct. App. Oct. 11, 2016). Seriously? He's an LLC manager.  That's all.  LLCs are not corporations OR partnerships. THEY ARE LLCS! 

February 6, 2018 in Corporations, Joshua P. Fershee, LLCs, Management | Permalink | Comments (3)

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)

Saturday, November 18, 2017

How 'Bout Them Lady Vols?

Quietly, just over two months ago, we got our Lady Vols back.  As you may recall, back in 2014, The University of Tennessee, Knoxville decided to consolidate its athletic branding behind the ubiquitous orange "Power T." The women's basketball team was exempted from the brand consolidation and retained the Lady Vol name and old-school logo in honor of our beloved departed coach, Pat Head Summitt. (See here.)

Many can be credited with the revival of the Lady Vols brand (and I do consider it to be an accomplishment), although perhaps these five heroic women are owed the largest debt of gratitude for the achievement.  I guess my earlier envisioned dreams of profiting from the abandonment of the trademarked Lady Vols logo will not soon be realized . . . .

There are lingering lessons in this affair for businesses and their management--and universities (as well as their athletic departments) are, among other things, businesses.  Knoxville's former Mayor weighed in with comments on the matter in a recent local news column, advising "you need to be sensitive to what the customer likes." He concludes (bracketed text added by me):

People will speculate for a long time on how UT let itself get caught up in this unfortunate situation for three years. It did not have to happen. It can be a valuable lesson, if once leaders realize a mistake has been made, postponing a resolution does not improve it. Better to make amends and move on.

Hopefully, DiPietro [the university's President] has learned from this that it is better to get ahead of a volatile issue than to be consumed by it. Currie [the university's new Director of Athletics] and Davenport [the campus's new Chancellor] solved it for him. They have won considerable good will for themselves and the university.

From Coca-Cola and its disastrous New Coke introduction (mentioned in the article) to Google Glass (which may have better applications, for the moment, than the general consumer market), businesses and their management have learned these lessons over and over.  Listen to the customer, and if you make a miscalculation, admit it and move on.

As law schools and law instructors continue to innovate to serve students, our universities (for those who are part of one), and the profession (among other constituencies), we may be able to learn a lesson or two from some of the broader experimentation in the business world in the introduction of new products and services.  Change for the sake of change or for the sake of branding simplicity, without an understanding of the relevant constituents, certainly is a risky proposition.  I hope that we can be thoughtful and consider all affected interests as we innovate.  And I also hope that when we fail in our change efforts (and some of us will fail) we can cut our losses and re-appraoch change with new knowledge and renewed energy to succeed. 

Getting back to those Lady Vols, our women's basketball team is now 2-0 with convincing wins over ETSU and James Madison.  The next game is Monday against Wichita State, followed by a Thanksgiving evening match against Marquette.  Go Lady Vols!

November 18, 2017 in Intellectual Property, Joan Heminway, Law School, Management, Sports | Permalink | Comments (3)