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)

Friday, October 2, 2020

Sex, Lies, and M&A- Part II

No. You didn't miss Part 1. I wrote about Weinstein clauses last July. Last Wednesday, I spoke with a reporter who had read that blog post.  Acquirors use these #MeToo/Weinstein clauses to require target companies to represent that there have been no allegations of, or settlement related to, sexual misconduct or harassment. I look at these clauses through the lens of a management-side employment lawyer/compliance officer/transactional drafting professor. It’s almost impossible to write these in a way that’s precise enough to provide the assurances that the acquiror wants or needs.

Specifically, the reporter wanted to know whether it was unusual that Chevron had added this clause into its merger documents with Noble Energy. As per the Prospectus:

Since January 1, 2018, to the knowledge of the Company, (i), no allegations of sexual harassment or other sexual misconduct have been made against any employee of the Company with the title of director, vice president or above through the Company’s anonymous employee hotline or any formal human resources communication channels at the Company, and (ii) there are no actions, suits, investigations or proceedings pending or, to the Company’s knowledge, threatened related to any allegations of sexual harassment or other sexual misconduct by any employee of the Company with the title of director, vice president or above. Since January 1, 2018, to the knowledge of the Company, neither the Company nor any of its Subsidiaries have entered into any settlement agreements related to allegations of sexual harassment or other sexual misconduct by any employee of the Company with the title of director, vice president or above.

Whether I agree with these clauses or not, I can see why Chevron wanted one. After all, Noble’s former general counsel left the company in 2017 to “pursue personal interests” after accusations that he had secretly recorded a female employee with a video camera under his desk. To its credit, Noble took swift action, although it did give the GC nine million dollars, which to be fair included $8.3 million in deferred compensation. Noble did not, however, exercise its clawback rights. Under these circumstances, if I represented Chevron, I would have asked for the same thing. Noble’s anonymous complaint mechanisms went to the GC’s office. I’m sure Chevron did its own social due diligence but you can never be too careful. Why would Noble agree? I have to assume that the company’s outside lawyers interviewed as many Noble employees as possible and provided a clean bill of health. Compared with others I’ve seen, the Chevron Weinstein clause is better than most.

Interestingly, although several hundred executives have left their positions due to allegations of sexual misconduct or harassment since 2017, only a small minority of companies use these Weinstein clauses. Here are a few:

  1. Merger between Cotiviti and Verscend Technologies:

Except in each case, as has not had and would not reasonably be expected to have, individually or in the aggregate, a Company Material Adverse Effect, to the Knowledge of the Company, (i) no allegations of sexual harassment have been made against (A) any officer or director of the Acquired Companies or (B) any employee of the Acquired Companies who, directly or indirectly, supervises at least eight (8) other employees of the Acquired Companies, and (ii) the Acquired Companies have not entered into any settlement agreement related to allegations of sexual harassment or sexual misconduct by an employee, contractor, director, officer or other Representative.

  1. Merger between Genuine Parts Company, Rhino SpinCo, Inc., Essendant Inc., and Elephant Merger Sub Corp.:

To the knowledge of GPC, in the last five (5) years, no allegations of sexual harassment have been made against any current SpinCo Business Employee who is (i) an executive officer or (ii) at the level of Senior Vice President or above.

  1. AGREEMENT AND PLAN OF MERGER BY AND AMONG WORDSTREAM, INC., GANNETT CO., INC., ORCA MERGER SUB, INC. AND SHAREHOLDER REPRESENTATIVE SERVICES LLC:

(i) The Company is not party to a settlement agreement with a current or former officer, employee or independent contractor of the Company or its Affiliates that involves allegations relating to sexual harassment or misconduct. To the Knowledge of the Company, in the last eight (8) years, no allegations of sexual harassment or misconduct have been made against any current or former officer or employee of the Company or its Affiliates.

  1. AGREEMENT AND PLAN OF MERGER By and Among RLJ ENTERTAINMENT, INC., AMC NETWORKS INC., DIGITAL ENTERTAINMENT HOLDINGS LLC and RIVER MERGER SUB INC.:

(c) To the Company’s Knowledge, in the last ten (10) years, (i) no allegations of sexual harassment have been made against any officer of the Company or any of its Subsidiaries, and (ii) the Company and its Subsidiaries have not entered into any settlement agreements related to allegations of sexual harassment or misconduct by an officer of the Company or any of its Subsidiaries.

Here are just a few questions:

  1. What's the definition of "sexual misconduct"? Are the companies using a legal definition? Under which law? None of the samples define the term.
  2. What happens of the company handbook or policies do not define "sexual misconduct"?
  3. How do the parties define "sexual harassment"? Are they using Title VII, state law, case law, their diversity training decks,  the employee handbook? None of the samples define the term.
  4. What about the definition of "allegation"? Is this an allegation through formal or informal channels (as employment lawyers would consider it)? Chevron gets high marks here.
  5. Have the target companies used the best knowledge qualifiers to protect themselves?
  6. How will the target company investigate whether the executives and officers have had “allegations”? Should the company lawyers do an investigation of every executive covered by the representation to make sure the company has the requisite “knowledge”? If the deal documents don't define "knowledge," should we impute knowledge?
  7. What about those in the succession plan who may not be in the officer or executives ranks?

Will we see more of these in the future? I don’t know. But I sure hope that General Motors has some protection in place after the most recent allegations against Nikola’s founder and former chairman, who faces sexual assault allegations from his teenage years. Despite allegations of fraud and sexual misconduct, GM appears to be moving forward with the deal, taking advantage of Nikola’s decreased valuation after the revelation of the scandals.

I’ll watch out for these #MeToo clauses in the future. In the meantime, I’ll ask my transactional drafting students to take a crack at reworking them. If you assign these clauses to your students, feel free to send me the work product at mweldon@law.miami.edu.

Take care and stay safe.

October 2, 2020 in Compliance, Contracts, Corporate Governance, Corporate Personality, Corporations, Current Affairs, Employment Law, Ethics, Lawyering, M&A, Management, Marcia Narine Weldon, Securities Regulation | Permalink | Comments (1)

Friday, September 18, 2020

Where Were The Gatekeepers Pt 2- Social Media's Social Dilemma

Two weeks ago, I wrote about the role of compliance officers and general counsel working for Big Pharma in Where Were the Gatekeepers- Part 1. As a former compliance officer and deputy general counsel, I wondered how and if those in-house sentinels were raising alarm bells about safety concerns related to rushing a COVID-19 vaccine to the public. Now that I’ve watched the Netflix documentary “The Social Dilemma,” I’m wondering the same thing about the lawyers and compliance professionals working for the social media companies.

The documentary features some of the engineers and executives behind the massive success of Google, Facebook, Pinterest, Twitter, YouTube and other platforms. Tristan Harris, a former Google design ethicist, is the star of the documentary and the main whistleblower. He raised concerns to 60 Minutes in 2017 and millions have watched his TED Talk.  He also testified before Congress in 2019 about how social media companies use algorithms and artificial intelligence to manipulate behavior. Human rights organizations have accused social media platforms of facilitating human rights abuses. Facebook and others have paid billions in fines for privacy violations.  Advertisers boycotted over Facebook and hate speech. But nothing has slowed their growth.

The documentary explicitly links the rising rate of youth depression, suicide, and risk taking behavior to social media’s disproportionate influence. Most of my friends who have watched it have already decreased their screen time or at least have become more conscious of it. Maybe they are taking a cue from those who work for these companies but don’t allow their young children to have any screen time. Hmmm … 

I’ve watched the documentary twice. Here are some of the more memorable quotes:

If you’re not paying for the product, then you’re the product.”

“They sell certainty that someone will see your advertisement.” 

“It’s not our data that’s being sold. They are building models to predict our actions based on the click, what emotions trigger you, what videos you will watch.” 

“Algorithms are opinions embedded in code.”

”It’s the gradual, slight, imperceptible change in our own behavior and perception that is the product.”

“Social media is a drug.”

”There are only two industries that call their customers ‘users’: illegal drugs and software.”

”Social media is a marketplace that trades exclusively in human futures.”

”The very meaning of culture is manipulation.”

“Social media isn’t a tool waiting to be used. It has its own goals, and it has its own means of pursuing them.”

“These services are killing people and causing people to kill themselves.”

“When you go to Google and type in “climate change is,” you will get a different result based on where you live … that’s a function of … the particular things Google knows about your interests.”

“It’s 2.7 billion Truman Show. Each person has their own reality, their own facts.” 

“It worries me that an algorithm I worked on is increasing polarization in society.”

“Fake news on Twitter spreads six times faster than real news.”

“People have no idea what is true and now it’s a matter of life and death.”

“Social media amplifies exponential gossip and exponential hearsay to the point that we don’t know what’s true no matter what issue we care about.”

“If you want to control the operation of a country, there’s never been a better tool than Facebook.”

"The Russians didn't hack Facebook. What they did was use the tools Facebook created for legitimate advertisers and legitimate users, and they applied it to a nefarious purpose." 

“What [am I] most worried about? In the short term horizon? Civil War.”

“How do you wake up from the matrix when you don’t know you’re in the matrix”?

“You could shut down the service and destroy . . . $20 billion in shareholder value and get sued, but you can’t in practice put the genie back in the model.”

“We need to accept that it’s ok for companies to be focused on making money but  it’s not ok when there’s no regulation, no rules, and no competition and companies are acting as de facto governments and then saying ‘we can regulate ourselves.’ “

“There’s no fiscal reason for these companies to change.”

This brings me back to the beginning of my post. We’ve heard from former investors, engineers, and algorithm magicians from these companies, but where were and are the gatekeepers? What were they doing to sound the alarm?  But maybe I’m asking the wrong question. As Ann Lipton’s provocative post on Doyle, Watson, and the Purpose of the Corporation notes, “Are you looking at things from outside the corporation, in terms of structuring our overall legal and societal institutions?  Or are you looking at things from inside the corporation, in terms of how corporate managers should understand their jobs and their own roles?”

If you’re a board member or C-Suite executive of a social media company, you have to ask yourself, what if hate speech, fake news, polarization, and addiction to your product are actually profitable? What if perpetuating rumors that maximize shareholder value is the right decision? Why would you change a business model that works for the shareholders even if it doesn’t work for the rest of society? If social media is like a drug, it’s up to parents to instill the right values in their children. I get it. But what about the lawyers and the people in charge of establishing, promoting, and maintaining an ethical culture? To be clear, I don’t mean in any way to impugn the integrity of lawyers and compliance professionals who work for social media companies. I have met several at business and human rights events and privacy conferences who take the power of the tech industry very seriously and advocate for change.

The social media companies have a dilemma. Compliance officers talk about “tone at the top,” “mood in the middle,” and the “buzz at the bottom.” Everyone in the organization has to believe in the ethical mandate as laid out and modeled by leadership. Indeed, CEOs typically sign off on warm, fuzzy statements about ethical behavior in the beginning of the Code of Conduct. I’ve drafted quite a few and looked at hundreds more.  Notably, Facebook’s Code of Conduct, updated just a few weeks ago, has no statement of principle from CEO Mark Zuckerberg and seems very lawyerlike. Perhaps there’s a more robust version that employees can access where Zuckerberg extols company values. Twitter’s code is slightly better and touches more on ethical culture. Google’s Code states, “Our products, features, and services should make Google more useful for all our users. We have many different types of users, from individuals to large businesses, but one guiding principle: “Is what we are offering useful?”’ My question is “useful” to whom? I use Google several times a day, but now I have to worry about what Google chooses to show me. What's my personal algorithm? I’ve been off of Facebook and Instagram since January 2020 and I have no plans to go back.

Fifty years ago, Milton Friedman uttered the famous statement, “There is one and only one social responsibility of business–to use its resources and engage in activities designed to increase its profits so long as it stays within the rules of the game, which is to say, engages in open and free competition without deception or fraud.” The social media companies have written the rules of the game. There is no competition. Now that the “Social Dilemma” is out, there really isn’t any more deception or fraud.

Do the social media companies actually have a social responsibility to do better? In 2012,  Facebook’s S-1 proclaimed that the company’s mission was to “make the world more open and connected.” Facebook’s current Sustainability Page claims that, “At Facebook, our mission is to give people the power to build community and bring the world closer together.” Why is it, then that in 2020, people seem more disconnected than ever even though they are tethered to their devices while awake and have them in reach while asleep? Facebook’s sustainability strategy appears to be centered around climate change and supply chain issues, important to be sure. But is it doing all that it can for the sustainability of society? Does it have to? I have no answer for that. All I can say is that you should watch the documentary and judge for yourself.

September 18, 2020 in Ann Lipton, Compliance, Corporate Governance, Corporate Personality, Corporations, CSR, Current Affairs, Ethics, Family, Film, Human Rights, Lawyering, Management, Marcia Narine Weldon, Psychology, Shareholders, Television | Permalink | Comments (0)

Saturday, September 5, 2020

Where Were The Gatekeepers Pt 1- Big Pharma and Operation Warp Speed

I think that the GCs at Big Pharma have hacked into my Zoom account. First, some background. Earlier this week, I asked my students in UM’s Lawyering in a Pandemic course to imagine that they were the compliance officers or GCs at the drug companies involved in Operation Warp Speed, the public-private partnership formed to find a vaccine for COVID-19 in months, rather than years. I asked the students what they would do if they thought that the scientists were cutting corners to meet the government’s deadlines. Some indicated that they would report it internally and then externally, if necessary.

I hated to burst their bubbles, but I explained that the current administration hasn’t been too welcoming to whistleblowers. I had served on a non-partisan, multi-stakeholder Department of Labor Whistleblower Protection Advisory Committee when President Trump came into office, which was disbanded shortly thereafter. For over a year after that, I received calls from concerned scientists asking where they could lodge complaints. With that background, I wanted my students to think about how company executives could reasonably would report on cutting corners to the government that was requiring the “warp speed” results in the first place. We didn’t even get into the potential ethical issues related to lawyers as whistleblowers.

Well the good news is that Pfizer, Moderna, Johnson & Johnson, GlaxoSmithKline, and Sanofi  announced on Friday that they have signed a pledge to make sure that they won’t jeopardize public safety by ignoring protocols. Apparently, the FDA may be planning its own statement to reassure the public. I look forward to seeing the statements when they’re released, but these companies have been working on these drugs for months. Better late than never, but why issue this statement now? Perhaps the lawyers and compliance officers – the gatekeepers – were doing their jobs and protecting the shareholders and the stakeholders. Maybe the scientists stood their ground. We will never know how or why the companies made this decision, but I’m glad they did. The companies hadn’t announced this safety pledge yet when I had my class and at the time, almost none of the students said they would get the vaccine. Maybe the pledge will change their minds.

Although the drug companies seem to be doing the right thing, I have other questions about Kodak. During the same class, I had asked my students to imagine that they were the GC, compliance officer, or board member at Kodak. Of course, some of my students probably didn’t even know what Kodak is because they take pictures with their phones. They don’t remember Kodak for film and cameras and absolutely no one knows Kodak as a pharmaceutical company. Perhaps that’s why everyone was stunned when Kodak announced a $765 million federal loan to start producing drug ingredients, especially because it’s so far outside the scope of its business. After all, the company makes chemicals for film development and manufacturing but not for life saving drugs. Kodak has struggled over the past few years because it missed the boat on digital cameras and has significant debt, filing for bankruptcy in 2012. It even dabbled in cryptocurrency for a few months in 2018. Not the first choice to help develop a vaccine.

To be charitable, Kodak did own a pharmaceutical company for a few years in the 80’s. But its most recent 10-K states that “Kodak is a global technology company focused on print and advanced materials and chemicals. Kodak provides industry-leading hardware, software, consumables and services primarily to customers in commercial print, packaging, publishing, manufacturing and entertainment.” 

The Kodak deal became even more newsworthy because the company issued 1.75 million in stock and options to the CEO and other grants to company insiders and board members before the public announcement of the federal loan. The CEO had only had the job for a year. I haven’t seen any news reports of insiders complaining or refusing the grants. In fact, the day after the announcement of the loan, a Kodak board member made a $116 million dollar donation to charity he founded. Understandably, the news of the deal caused Kodak’s shares to soar. Insiders profited, and the SEC started asking questions after looking at records of the stock trades.

Alas, the deal is on hold as the SEC investigates. The White House’s own trade advisor has said that this may be “one of the dumbest decisions by executives in corporate history.” I’m not sure about that, but there actually may be nothing to see here. Some believe that there was a snafu with the timing of the announcement and that the nuances of Reg FD may get Kodak off the hook .I wonder though, what the gatekeepers were doing? Did the GC, compliance officer, or any board member ask the obvious questions? “Why are we doing something so far outside of our core competency?” They didn’t even get the digital camera thing right and that is Kodak’s core competency. Did anyone ask “should we really be issuing options and grants right before the announcement? Isn’t this loan material, nonpublic information and shouldn’t we wait to trade?”

I’ll keep watching the Kodak saga and will report back. In coming posts, I’ll write about other compliance and corporate governance mishaps. In the meantime, stay safe and please wear your masks.


.

September 5, 2020 in Compensation, Compliance, Corporate Governance, Corporate Personality, Corporations, Current Affairs, Ethics, Financial Markets, Lawyering, Management, Marcia Narine Weldon, Securities Regulation, Shareholders, Technology | Permalink | Comments (0)

Friday, August 14, 2020

Wokewashing and the Board

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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)