Monday, November 4, 2019
I approached with some curiosity the Securities and Exchange Commission's recent shareholder proposal guidance in Staff Legal Bulletin No. 14J ("SLB 14J"). My interest in this topic stems from my past life as a full-time lawyer in private practice. During that time, I both wrote shareholder proposals and wrote no-action letters to the Securities and Exchange Commission ("SEC") to keep shareholder proposals out of corporate proxy statements.
In SLB 14J, the SEC clarifies its application of the "ordinary business" exception to the inclusion of a shareholder proposal under Rule 14a-8. Specifically, "[t]he Commission has stated that the policy underlying the 'ordinary business' exception rests on two central considerations. The first relates to the proposal’s subject matter; the second relates to the degree to which the proposal 'micromanages' the company." I want to share the SEC's guidance with you on the latter.
The idea of shareholders micromanaging most public firms is almost laughable. Yet, certain shareholder proposals do get somewhat specific in their direction of the firm and its resources.
In considering arguments for exclusion based on micromanagement, . . . we look to whether the proposal seeks intricate detail or imposes a specific strategy, method, action, outcome or timeline for addressing an issue, thereby supplanting the judgment of management and the board. [A] proposal, regardless of its precatory nature, that prescribes specific timeframes or methods for implementing complex policies, consistent with the Commission’s guidance, may run afoul of micromanagement. In our view, the precatory nature of a proposal does not bear on the degree to which a proposal micromanages. . . .
This makes some sense to me, yet this guidance may not be as easy to apply as the SEC may think. Here is the SEC's example of an excludable proposal:
For example, this past season we agreed that a proposal seeking annual reporting on “short-, medium- and long-term greenhouse gas targets aligned with the greenhouse gas reduction goals established by the Paris Climate Agreement to keep the increase in global average temperature to well below 2 degrees Celsius and to pursue efforts to limit the increase to 1.5 degrees Celsius” was excludable on the basis of micromanagement. In our view, the proposal micromanaged the company by prescribing the method for addressing reduction of greenhouse gas emissions. We viewed the proposal as effectively requiring the adoption of time-bound targets (short, medium and long) that the company would measure itself against and changes in operations to meet those goals, thereby imposing a specific method for implementing a complex policy.
I am note sure how I feel about the characterization of this proposal as excludable. Is the described proposal about reporting or about "prescribing the method for addressing the reduction of addressing reduction of greenhouse gas emissions"? Well, maybe a little of each . . . . What do you think?
During my time in active, full-time law practice, the format and content of Rule 14a-8 changed a number of times. It appears that the SEC may be poised to make another change--one more fundamental than enhanced guidance. According to one recent report, the SEC may announce as early as tomorrow "changes . . . to make it harder for shareholders to file proposals, and harder for proposals to be eligible for re-filing in subsequent years." Stay tuned for that possible announcement.
[Note: All footnote references in the quotations used in this post have been omitted.]
Saturday, September 7, 2019
Have you ever wanted to learn the basics about blockchain? Do you think it's all hype and a passing fad? Whatever your view, take a look at my new article, Beyond Bitcoin: Leveraging Blockchain to Benefit Business and Society, co-authored with Rachel Epstein, counsel at Hedera Hashgraph. I became interested in blockchain a year ago because I immediately saw potential use cases in supply chain, compliance, and corporate governance. I met Rachel at a Humanitarian Blockchain Summit and although I had already started the article, her practical experience in the field added balance, perspective, and nuance.
The abstract is below:
Although many people equate blockchain with bitcoin, cryptocurrency, and smart contracts, the technology also has the potential to transform the way companies look at governance and enterprise risk management, and to assist governments and businesses in mitigating human rights impacts. This Article will discuss how state and non-state actors use the technology outside of the realm of cryptocurrency. Part I will provide an overview of blockchain technology. Part II will briefly describe how public and private actors use blockchain today to track food, address land grabs, protect refugee identity rights, combat bribery and corruption, eliminate voter fraud, and facilitate financial transactions for those without access to banks. Part III will discuss key corporate governance, compliance, and social responsibility initiatives that currently utilize blockchain or are exploring the possibilities for shareholder communications, internal audit, and cyber security. Part IV will delve into the business and human rights landscape and examine how blockchain can facilitate compliance. Specifically, we will focus on one of the more promising uses of distributed ledger technology -- eliminating barriers to transparency in the human rights arena thereby satisfying various mandatory disclosure regimes and shareholder requests. Part V will pose questions that board members should ask when considering adopting the technology and will recommend that governments, rating agencies, sustainable stock exchanges, and institutional investors provide incentives for companies to invest in the technology, when appropriate. Given the increasing widespread use of the technology by both state and non-state actors and the potential disruptive capabilities, we conclude that firms that do not explore blockchain’s impact risk obsolescence or increased regulation.
Things change so quickly in this space. Some of the information in the article is already outdated and some of the initiatives have expanded. To keep up, you may want to subscribe to newsletters such as Hunton, Andrews, Kurth's Blockchain Legal Resource. For more general information on blockchain, see my post from last year, where I list some of the videos that I watched to become literate on the topic. For additional resources, see here and here.
If you are interested specifically in government use cases, consider joining the Government Blockchain Association. On September 14th and 15th, the GBA is holding its Fall 2019 Symposium, “The Future of Money, Governance and the Law,” in Arlington, Virginia. Speakers will include a chief economist from the World Bank and banking, political, legal, regulatory, defense, intelligence, and law enforcement professionals from around the world. This event is sponsored by the George Mason University Schar School of Policy and Government, Criminal Investigations and Network Analysis (CINA) Center, and the Government Blockchain Association (GBA). Organizers expect over 300 government, industry and academic leaders on the Arlington Campus of George Mason University, either in person or virtually. To find out more about the event go to: http://bit.ly/FoMGL-914.
Blockchain is complex and it's easy to get overwhelmed. It's not the answer to everything, but I will continue my focus on the compliance, governance, and human rights implications, particularly for Dodd-Frank and EU conflict minerals due diligence and disclosure. As lawyers, judges, and law students, we need to educate ourselves so that we can provide solid advice to legislators and business people who can easily make things worse by, for example, drafting laws that do not make sense and developing smart contracts with so many loopholes that they cause jurisdictional and enforcement nightmares.
Notwithstanding the controversy surrounding blockchain, I'm particularly proud of this article and would not have been able to do it without my co-author, Rachel, my fantastic research assistants Jordan Suarez, Natalia Jaramillo, and Lauren Miller from the University of Miami School of Law, and the student editors at the Tennessee Journal of Business Law. If you have questions or please post them below or reach out to me at firstname.lastname@example.org.
September 7, 2019 in Compliance, Conferences, Contracts, Corporate Governance, Corporations, CSR, Current Affairs, Financial Markets, Human Rights, Law Reviews, Lawyering, Legislation, Marcia Narine Weldon, Securities Regulation, Shareholders, Technology | Permalink | Comments (0)
Friday, August 23, 2019
I had planned to write about the Statement on the Purpose of a Corporation signed by 200 top CEOs. If you read this blog, you've likely read the coverage and the varying opinions. I'm still reading the various blog posts, statements by NGOs, and 10-Ks of some of the largest companies so that I can gather my thoughts. In the meantime, many of these same companies will be at the UN Forum on Business and Human Rights touting their records. I've been to the Forum several times, and it's worth the trip. If you're interested in joining over 2,000 people, including representatives from many of the signatories of the Statement, see below. You can register here:
The UN annual Forum on Business and Human Rights is the global platform for stock-taking and lesson-sharing on efforts to move the UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights from paper to practice. As the world’s foremost gathering in this area, it provides a unique space for dialogue between governments, business, civil society, affected groups and international organizations on trends, challenges and good practices in preventing and addressing business-related human rights impacts. The first Forum was held in 2012. It attracts more than 2,000 experts, practitioners and leaders for three days of an action- and solution-oriented dialogue.The Forum was established by the UN Human Rights Council in 2011 “to discuss trends and challenges in the implementation of the Guiding Principles and promote dialogue and cooperation on issues linked to business and human rights, including challenges faced in particular sectors, operational environments or in relation to specific rights or groups, as well as identifying good practices” (resolution 17/4, paragraph 12).
The Forum addresses all three pillars of the Guiding Principles:
- The State duty to protect against human rights abuses by third parties, including business, through appropriate policies, regulation and adjudication;
- The corporate responsibility to respect human rights, which means to avoid infringing on the rights of others and to address adverse impacts with which a business is involved; and
- The need for access to effective remedy for rights-holders when abuse has occurred, through both judicial and non-judicial grievance mechanisms
The Forum is guided and chaired by the UN Working Group on Business and Human Rights and organized by its Secretariat at the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR).
If you have any questions about the value of attending the Forum, feel free to reach out to me at email@example.com.
August 23, 2019 in Conferences, Corporate Personality, Corporations, CSR, Current Affairs, Human Rights, International Business, International Law, Marcia Narine Weldon, Shareholders, Social Enterprise | Permalink | Comments (0)
Friday, August 16, 2019
Last week, I led a “legal hack” for some of the first year students during orientation. Each participating professor spoke for ten minutes on a topic of our choice and then answered questions for ten minutes. I picked business and human rights, my passion. I titled my brief lecture, “Are you using a product made by slaves, and if you are, can you do anything about it”?
In my ten minutes, I introduced the problem of global slavery; touched on the false and deceptive trade practices litigation levied against companies; described the role of shareholder activists and socially responsible investors in pressuring companies to clean up supply chains; raised doubts about the effectiveness of some of the disclosure regimes in the US, EU, and Australia; questioned the efficacy of conscious consumerism; and mentioned blockchain as a potential tool for provenance of goods. Yes. In ten minutes.
During the actual hack later in the afternoon, I had a bit more time to flesh out the problem. I developed a case study around the Rana Plaza disaster in which a building collapse in Bangladesh killed over 1,000 garment workers six years ago. Students brainstormed solutions to the problems I posed with the help of upperclassmen as student facilitators and community stakeholders with subject matter expertise. At the end of the two-hour brainstorming session, the students presented their solutions to me.
We delved deeper into my subject matter as I asked my student hackers to play one of four roles: a US CEO of a company with a well-publicized CSR policy deciding whether to stay in Bangladesh or source from a country with a better human rights record; a US Presidential candidate commenting on both a potential binding treaty on business and human rights and a proposed federal mandatory due diligence regime in supply chains; a trade union representative in Bangladesh prioritizing recommendations and demands to EU and US companies; and a social media influencer with over 100 million followers who intended to use his platform to help an NGO raise awareness.
This exercise was identical to an exercise I did in March in Pakistan with 100 business leaders, students, lawyers, government officials, and members of civil society as part of an ABA Rule of Law Initiative. The only difference was that I asked Pakistanis to represent the Bangladesh government and I asked the US students to represent a political candidate.
In both Pakistan and Miami, the participants had to view the labor issues in the supply chain from a multistakeholder perspective. Interestingly, in both Pakistan and Miami, the participants playing the social media influencer rejected the idea of a boycott. Even though multiple groups played this role in both places, each group believed that seeking a boycott of companies that used unsafe Bangladeshi factories would cause more harm than good.
Of note, the Miami Law students did their hack during the call for a boycott of Soul Cycle due to Steve Ross’ decision to hold a fundraiser for President Trump. In my unscientific poll, three out of three students who patronized Soul Cycle refused to boycott. When it came to the fictionalized case study, all groups raised concerns that a boycott could hurt garment workers in Bangladesh and retail workers in the US and EU. Some considered a “buycott” to support brands with stronger human rights records.
I’ve written before about my skepticism about long term boycotts, especially those led by millennials. Some of these same students echoed my concerns about their own lack of sustained commitment on proposed boycotts in the past. The “winning” hack- #DoBetterBangladesh was a multipronged strategy to educate consumers, adopt best practices of successful campaigns such as the Imokalee
farm workers, and form acoalition with other influencers to encourage consumer donations to reputable NGOs in Bangladesh. After seeing what these student groups could do in just two hours, I can’t wait to see what they can accomplish after three years of law school.
Friday, December 7, 2018
In January 2018, Larry Fink of Blackrock, the world’s largest asset manager, shocked skeptics like me when he told CEOs:
In the current environment, these stakeholders are demanding that companies exercise leadership on a broader range of issues. And they are right to: a company’s ability to manage environmental, social, and governance matters demonstrates the leadership and good governance that is so essential to sustainable growth, which is why we are increasingly integrating these issues into our investment process. Companies must ask themselves: What role do we play in the community? How are we managing our impact on the environment? Are we working to create a diverse workforce? Are we adapting to technological change? Are we providing the retraining and opportunities that our employees and our business will need to adjust to an increasingly automated world? Are we using behavioral finance and other tools to prepare workers for retirement, so that they invest in a way that will help them achieve their goals?
In October 2018, Blackrock declared, “sustainable investing is becoming mainstream investing.” The firm bundled six existing ESG EFT funds and launched six similar funds in Europe and looked like the model corporate citisen.
So does Blackrock actually divest from companies with human rights violations or that do not provide meaningful disclosures on human trafficking, child slavery, forced labor, or conflict minerals? The company did not publicly divest from gun manufacturers although it did “speak with” them in February after the Parkland school shooting; the company has stated that due to fiduciary concerns, it cannot divest from single companies in a portfolio.
In theory, a behemoth like Blackrock could have a significant impact on a firm’s ESG practices, if it so chose. It could set an example for companies and for other institutional investors by seeking (1) additional information after reviewing disclosures and/or (2) demanding changes in management if companies did not in fact, show a true commitment to ESG.
But I shouldn’t pick on Blackrock. Based on what I heard last week in Geneva at the UN Forum on Business and Human Rights, other investors outside of the SRI arena aren’t pressuring companies either. I attended the Forum for the fourth time with over 2,000 members from the business, NGO, civil society, academic, and governmental communities. There was a heavy focus this year on supply chain issues because 80% of the world’s goods travel through large, international companies.The Responsible Business Alliance and others stressed the importance of eradiating forced labor. Apple, Google, Microsoft, Intel, and Amnesty International focused on tech companies, artificial intelligence, and human rights implications. Rio Tinto and Nestle allowed an NGO to publicly criticize their disclosure reports in painstaking detail. An activist told the entire plenary that states needed to stop killing human rights defenders. In other words, business as usual at the Forum. Here are some of the takeaways from some of the sessions:
- NGO PODER warned that investors should not divest when companies are not living up to their responsibilities but instead should engage companies on ESG factors and demand board seats.
- The UN Working Group on Business and Human Rights observed that rating agencies can and should be a fast track to the board on ESG issues.
- A representative from the Sustainable Stock Exchanges Initiative, a joint initiative of UNCTAD, PRI, the UN Global Compact, and UNEP-FI, indicated that investors want to know if ESG information is material. It may be salient, but not material to some. 79 stock exchanges around the world have partnered with the SSEI. 39 have voluntary ESG disclosures and 16 have mandatory disclosures.
- The Business and Human Rights Resources Center noted that of 7,200 corporate statements mandated by the UK Modern Slavery Act, only 25% met the minimum requirements required by law. As they shocked the audience with this statistic, news alerts went out the Australia had finally passed its own anti slavery law.
- 40% of companies in apparel, agricultural, and extractive industries have a 0 (zero) score for human rights due diligence, indicating weak implementation of the UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights. The average score in the benchmark was only 27%.
- French companies must respond to the French Duty of Vigilance Law and the EU Nonfinancial Disclosure regulations, which have different approached to identifying risks. It could take six months to do an audit to do the disclosure, but investors rarely question the companies directly or the data.
- SAP Ariba found that 66% of consumers believe they have a duty to buy goods that are good for society and the environment and that sustainability is mostly driven by millennials and generation Z consumers.
- Nestle, the biggest food and beverage company in the world, requires its 165,000 suppliers to follow responsible sourcing standard especially for child and forced labor. The conglomerate partners with NGOs to conduct human rights impact assessments for their upstream suppliers.
- Apple has returned 30 million USD in recruitment fees to workers since 2008 to address forced labor and illegal practices. HP has also returned fees. The hotel industry has banded together to fight forced labor. Most responsible businesses have banned the use of recruitment fees but many workers still pay them to personnel agencies in the hopes of getting jobs with large companies.
- Many companies are now looking at human rights and ESG issues throughout their own supply chains but also with their joint venture, merger, and other key business partners.
- Rae Lindsay of Clifford Chance noted that avoiding legal risk is not the main role of human rights due diligence but lawyers working across disciplines can make sure that clients don’t inadvertently add to legal risk in deals. She encourages deal lawyers to become familiar with the risks and law and business students to learn about these issues.
So do investors care about ESG? Are these disclosure rules working? You wouldn’t think so by hearing the speakers at the Forum. On the other hand, proxy advisory firm ISS recently launched an Environmental and Social Quality Score to better evaluate the ESG risks in its portfolio companies. I’ll keep an eye out for any divestments or shareholder proposals.
I’m not holding my breath for too much progress next year at the Forum. While I was encouraged by the good work of many of the companies that attended, I remain convinced that the disclosure regime is ineffective in effectuating meaningful change in the world’s most vulnerable communities. Unless governments, rating agencies, investors, or consumers act, too many companies will continue to pay lip service to their human rights commitments.
December 7, 2018 in Compliance, Conferences, Corporate Governance, Corporations, CSR, Current Affairs, Human Rights, International Business, International Law, Marcia Narine Weldon, Shareholders | Permalink | Comments (1)
Saturday, September 1, 2018
Did I lose you with the title to this post? Do you have no idea what a DAO is? In its simplest terms, a DAO is a decentralized autonomous organization, whose decisions are made electronically by a written computer code or through the vote of its members. In theory, it eliminates the need for traditional documentation and people for governance. This post won't explain any more about DAOs or the infamous hack of the Slock.it DAO in 2016. I chose this provocative title to inspire you to read an article entitled Legal Education in the Blockchain Revolution.
The authors Mark Fenwick, Wulf A. Kaal, and Erik P. M. Vermeulen discuss how technological innovations, including artificial intelligence and blockchain will change how we teach and practice law related to real property, IP, privacy, contracts, and employment law. If you're a practicing lawyer, you have a duty of competence. You need to know what you don't know so that you avoid advising on areas outside of your level of expertise. It may be exciting to advise a company on tax, IP, securities law or other legal issues related to cryptocurrency or blockchain, but you could subject yourself to discipline for doing so without the requisite background. If you teach law, you will have students clamoring for information on innovative technology and how the law applies. Cornell University now offers 28 courses on blockchain, and a professor at NYU's Stern School of Business has 235 people in his class. Other schools are scrambling to find professors qualified to teach on the subject.
To understand the hype, read the article on the future of legal education. The abstract is below:
The legal profession is one of the most disrupted sectors of the consulting industry today. The rise of Legal Tech, artificial intelligence, big data, machine learning, and, most importantly, blockchain technology is changing the practice of law. The sharing economy and platform companies challenge many of the traditional assumptions, doctrines, and concepts of law and governance, requiring litigators, judges, and regulators to adapt. Lawyers need to be equipped with the necessary skillsets to operate effectively in the new world of disruptive innovation in law. A more creative and innovative approach to educating lawyers for the 21st century is needed.
For more on how blockchain is changing business and corporate governance, come by my talk at the University of Tennessee on September 14th where you will also hear from my co-bloggers. In case you have no interest in my topic, it's worth the drive/flight to hear from the others. The descriptions of the sessions are below:
Session 1: Breach of Fiduciary Duty and the Defense of Reliance on Experts
Many corporate statutes expressly provide that directors in discharging their duties may rely in good faith upon information, opinions, reports, or statements from officers, board committees, employees, or other experts (such as accountants or lawyers). Such statutes often come into play when directors have been charged with breaching their procedural duty of care by making an inadequately informed decision, but they can be applicable in other contexts as well. In effect, the statutes provide a defense to directors charged with breach of fiduciary duty when their allegedly uninformed or wrongful decisions were based on credible information provided by others with appropriate expertise. Professor Douglas Moll will examine these “reliance on experts” statutes and explore a number of questions associated with them.
Session 2: Fact or Fiction: Flawed Approaches to Evaluating Market Behavior in Securities Litigation
Private fraud actions brought under Section 10(b) of the Securities Exchange Act require courts to make a variety of determinations regarding market functioning and the economic effects of the alleged misconduct. Over the years, courts have developed a variety of doctrines to guide how these inquiries are to be conducted. For example, courts look to a series of specific, pre-defined factors to determine whether a market is “efficient” and thus responsive to new information. Courts also rely on a variety of doctrines to determine whether and for how long publicly-available information has exerted an influence on security prices. Courts’ judgments on these matters dictate whether cases will proceed to summary judgment and trial, whether classes will be certified and the scope of such classes, and the damages that investors are entitled to collect. Professor Ann M. Lipton will discuss how these doctrines operate in such an artificial manner that they no longer shed light on the underlying factual inquiry, namely, the actual effect of the alleged fraud on investors.
Session 3: Lawyering for Social Enterprise
Professor Joan Heminway will focus on salient components of professional responsibility operative in delivering advisory legal services to social enterprises. Social enterprises—businesses that exist to generate financial and social or environmental benefits—have received significant positive public attention in recent years. However, social enterprise and the related concepts of social entrepreneurship and impact investing are neither well defined nor well understood. As a result, entrepreneurs, investors, intermediaries, and agents, as well as their respective advisors, may be operating under different impressions or assumptions about what social enterprise is and have different ideas about how to best build and manage a sustainable social enterprise business. Professor Heminway will discuss how these legal uncertainties have the capacity to generate transaction costs around entity formation and management decision making and the pertinent professional responsibilities implicated in an attorney’s representation of such social enterprises.
Session 4: Beyond Bitcoin: Leveraging Blockchain for Corporate Governance, Corporate Social Responsibility, and Enterprise Risk Management
Although many people equate blockchain with bitcoin, cryptocurrency, and smart contracts, Professor Marcia Narine Weldon will discuss how the technology also has the potential to transform the way companies look at governance and enterprise risk management. Companies and stock exchanges are using blockchain for shareholder communications, managing supply chains, internal audit, and cybersecurity. Professor Weldon will focus on eliminating barriers to transparency in the human rights arena. Professor Weldon’s discussion will provide an overview of blockchain technology and how state and nonstate actors use the technology outside of the realm of cryptocurrency.
Session 5: Crafting State Corporate Law for Research and Review
Professor Benjamin Edwards will discuss how states can implement changes in state corporate law with an eye toward putting in place provisions and measures to make it easier for policymakers to retrospectively review changes to state law to discern whether legislation accomplished its stated goals. State legislatures often enact and amend their business corporation laws without considering how to review and evaluate their effectiveness and impact. This inattention means that state legislatures quickly lose sight of whether the changes actually generate the benefits desired at the time off passage. It also means that state legislatures may not observe stock price reactions or other market reactions to legislation. Our federal system allows states to serve as the laboratories of democracy. The controversy over fee-shifting bylaws and corporate charter provisions offers an opportunity for state legislatures to intelligently design changes in corporate law to achieve multiple state and regulatory objectives. Professor Edwards will discuss how well-crafted legislation would: (i) allow states to compete effectively in the market for corporate charters; and (ii) generate useful information for evaluating whether particular bylaws or charter provisions enhance shareholder wealth.
Session 6: An Overt Disclosure Requirement for Eliminating the Duty of Loyalty
When Delaware law allowed parties to eliminate the duty of loyalty for LLCs, more than a few people were appalled. Concerns about eliminating the duty of loyalty are not surprising given traditional business law fiduciary duty doctrine. However, as business agreements evolved, and became more sophisticated, freedom of contract has become more common, and attractive. How to reconcile this tradition with the emerging trend? Professor Joshua Fershée will discuss why we need to bring a partnership principle to LLCs to help. In partnerships, the default rule is that changes to the partnership agreement or acts outside the ordinary course of business require a unanimous vote. See UPA § 18(h) & RUPA § 401(j). As such, the duty of loyalty should have the same requirement, and perhaps that even the rule should be mandatory, not just default. The duty of loyalty norm is sufficiently ingrained that more active notice (and more explicit consent) is necessary, and eliminating the duty of loyalty is sufficiently unique that it warrants unique treatment if it is to be eliminated.
Session 7: Does Corporate Personhood Matter? A Review of We the Corporations
Professor Stefan Padfield will discuss a book written by UCLA Law Professor Adam Winkler, “We the Corporations: How American Businesses Won Their Civil Rights.” The highly-praised book “reveals the secret history of one of America’s most successful yet least-known ‘civil rights movements’ – the centuries-long struggle for equal rights for corporations.” However, the book is not without its controversial assertions, particularly when it comes to its characterizations of some of the key components of corporate personhood and corporate personality theory. This discussion will unpack some of these assertions, hopefully ensuring that advocates who rely on the book will be informed as to alternative approaches to key issues.
September 1, 2018 in Ann Lipton, Compliance, Conferences, Contracts, Corporate Governance, Corporate Personality, Corporations, Current Affairs, Employment Law, Human Rights, Intellectual Property, International Business, Joan Heminway, Joshua P. Fershee, Law School, Lawyering, LLCs, Marcia Narine Weldon, Real Property, Shareholders, Social Enterprise, Stefan J. Padfield, Teaching, Technology, Web/Tech | Permalink | Comments (0)
Tuesday, August 21, 2018
Senator Elizabeth Warren last week released her Accountable Capitalism Act. My co-blogger Haskell Murray wrote about that here, as have a number of others, including Professor Bainbridge, who has written at least seven posts on his blog. Countless others have weighed in, as well.
There are fans of the idea, others who are agnostic, and still other who thinks it’s a terrible idea. I am not taking a position on any of that, because I am too busy working through all the flaws with regard to entity law itself to even think about the overall Act.
As a critic of how most people view entities, my expectations were low. On the plus side, the bill does not say “limited liability corporation” one time. So that’s a win. Still, there are a number of entity law flaws that make the bill problematic before you even get to what it’s supposed to do. The problem: the bill uses “corporation” too often where it means “entity” or “business.”
Let’s start with the Section 2. DEFINITIONS. This section provides:
(2) LARGE ENTITY.—
(A) IN GENERAL.—The term ‘‘large entity’’ means an entity that—
(i) is organized under the laws of a State as a corporation, body corporate, body politic, joint stock company, or limited liability company;
(ii) engages in interstate commerce; and
(iii) in a taxable year, according to in- formation provided by the entity to the Internal Revenue Service, has more than $1,000,000,000 in gross receipts.
Okay, so it does list LLCs, correctly, but it does not list partnerships. This would seem to exclude Master Limited Partnerships (MLPs). The Alerian MLP Indexlist about 40 MLPs with at least a $1 billion market cap. It also leaves our publicly traded partnerships(PTPs). So, that’s a miss, to say the least.
Section 2 goes on to define a
(6) UNITED STATES CORPORATION.—The term “United States corporation’’ means a large entity with respect to which the Office has granted a charter under section 3.
The bill also creates an “Office of United States Corporations,” in Section 3, even though the definitions section clear says a “large entity” includes more than just corporations.
Next is Section 4, which provides the “Requirement for Large Entities to Obtain Charters.”
(1) IN GENERAL.— An entity that is organized as a corporation, body corporate, body politic, joint stock company, or limited liability company in a State shall obtain a charter from the Office . . . .”
So, again, the definition does not include MLPs (or any other partnership forms, or coops for that matter) as large entities. I am not at all clear why the Act would refer to and define “Large Entities,” then go back to using “corporations.” Odd.
Later in section 4, we get the repercussions for the failure to obtain a charter:
An entity to which paragraph (1) applies and that fails to obtain a charter from the Office as required under that paragraph shall not be treated as a corporation, body corporate, body politic, joint-stock company, or limited liability company, as applicable, for the purposes of Federal law during the period beginning on the date on which the entity is required to obtain a charter under that paragraph and ending on the date on which the entity obtains the charter.
Here, the section chooses not to use the large entity definition or the corporation definition and instead repeats the entity list from the definitions section. As a side note, does this section mean that, for “purposes of Federal law,” any statutory “large entity” without a charter is a general partnership or sole proprietorship? I would hope not for the LLC, which isn’t a corporation, anyway.
Finally, in Section 5, the Act provides:
(1) RULE OF CONSTRUCTION REGARDING GENERAL CORPORATE LAW.—Nothing in this section may be construed to affect any provision of law that is applicable to a corporation, body corporate, body politic, joint stock company, or limited liability company, as applicable, that is not a United States corporation.
Again, I will note that “general corporate law” should not apply to anything but corporations, anyway. LLCs, in particular.
The Act further contemplates a standard of conduct for directors and officers. LLCs do not have to have either, at least not in the way corporations do, nor do MLPs/PTPs, which admittedly do not appear covered, anyway. The Act also contemplates shareholders and shareholder suits, which are not a thing for LLCs/MLPs/PTPs because they don’t have shareholders.
This is not an exhaustive list, but I think it’s a pretty good start. I will concede that some of my critiques could be argued another way. Obviously, I'd disagree, but maybe some of this is not as egregious as I see it. Still, there are flaws, and if this thing is going to move beyond even the release, I sure hope they take the time to get the entity issues figured out. I’d be happy to help.
August 21, 2018 in Corporate Governance, Corporate Personality, Corporations, CSR, Joshua P. Fershee, Legislation, LLCs, Management, Partnership, Shareholders, Unincorporated Entities | Permalink | Comments (0)
Sunday, August 12, 2018
We’re a month away from our second annual Business Law Professor Blog CLE, hosted at the University of Tennessee on Friday, September 14, 2018. We’ll discuss our latest research and receive comments from UT faculty and students. I’ve entitled my talk Beyond Bitcoin: Leveraging Blockchain for Corporate Governance, Corporate Social Responsibility, and Enterprise Risk Management, and will blog more about that after I finish the article. This is a really long post, but it’s chock full of helpful links for novices and experts alike and highlights some really interesting work from our colleagues at other law schools.
Two weeks ago, I posted some resources to help familiarize you with blockchain. Here’s a relatively simple definition from John Giordani at Forbes:
Blockchain is a public register in which transactions between two users belonging to the same network are stored in a secure, verifiable and permanent way. The data relating to the exchanges are saved inside cryptographic blocks, connected in a hierarchical manner to each other. This creates an endless chain of data blocks -- hence the name blockchain -- that allows you to trace and verify all the transactions you have ever made. The primary function of a blockchain is, therefore, to certify transactions between people. In the case of Bitcoin, the blockchain serves to verify the exchange of cryptocurrency between two users, but it is only one of the many possible uses of this technological structure. In other sectors, the blockchain can certify the exchange of shares and stocks, operate as if it were a notary and "validate" a contract or make the votes cast in online voting secure and impossible to alter. One of the greatest advantages of the blockchain is the high degree of security it guarantees. In fact, once a transaction is certified and saved within one of the chain blocks, it can no longer be modified or tampered with. Each block consists of a pointer that connects it to the previous block, a timestamp that certifies the time at which the event actually took place and the transaction data.
These three elements ensure that each element of the blockchain is unique and immutable -- any request to modify the timestamp or the content of the block would change all subsequent blocks. This is because the pointer is created based on the data in the previous block, triggering a real chain reaction. In order for any alterations to happen, it would be necessary for the 50%-plus-one of the network to approve the change: a possible but hardly feasible operation since the blockchain is distributed worldwide between millions of users.
In case that wasn’t clear enough, here are links to a few of my favorite videos for novices. These will help you understand the rest of this blog post.
- Blockchain Expert Explains One Concept in 5 Levels of Difficulty
- 19 Industries That Blockchain Will Disrupt
- How Blockchain is Changing Money and Business
To help prepare for my own talk in Tennessee, I attended a fascinating discussion at SEALS on Thursday moderated by Dean Jon Garon of Nova Southeastern University Shepard Broad College of Law called Blockchain Technology and the Law.
For those of you who don’t know how blockchain technology can relate to your practice or teaching, I thought I would provide a few questions raised by some of the speakers. I’ve inserted some (oversimplified)links for definitions. The speakers did not include these links, so if I have used one that you believe is incomplete or inaccurate, do not attribute it to them.
Del started the session by talking about the legal issues in blockchain consensus models. He described consensus models as the backbones for users because they: 1) allow users to interact with each other in a trustless manner; 2) ensure the integrity of the ledger in both normal and adversarial situations; and 3) create a “novel variety of networks with extraordinary potential” if implemented correctly. He discussed both permissioned (e.g. Ripple) and permissionless (Bitcoin) systems and how they differ. He then explained Proof of Work blockchains supported by miners (who solve problems to add blocks to the blockchain) and masternodes (who provide the backbone support to the blockchain). He pointed out how blockchains can reduce agency costs and problems of asymmetrical information and then focused on their utility in financial markets, securities regulation, and corporate governance. Del compared the issues related to off-chain governance, where decisionmaking first takes place on a social level and is then actively encoded into the protocol by the developers (used by Bitcoin and Ethereum) to on-chain governance, where developers broadcast their improvement protocols on-chain and then, once approved, those improvements are implemented into the code. He closed by listing a number of “big unanswered issues” related to regulatory guidance, liability for the performance of the technology and choice of consensus, global issues, and GDPR and other data privacy issues.
Catherine wants to help judges think about smart contracts. She asked, among other things, how judges should address remedies, what counts as substantial performance, and how smart contract audits would work. She questioned whether judges should use a consumer protection approach or instead follow a draconian approach by embracing automation and enforcing smart contracts as drafted to discourage their adoption by those who are not sophisticated enough to understand how they work.
Tonya focuses on blockchain and intellectual property. Her talked raised the issues of non-fungible tokens generated through smart contracts and the internet of value. She used the example of cryptokitties, where players have the chance to collect and breed digital cats. She also raised the question of what kind of technology can avoid infringement. For more on how blockchain can disrupt copyright law, read her post here.
In case you didn’t have enough trust issues with blockchain and cryptocurrency, Rebecca’s presentation focused on the “halo of immutability” and asked a few central questions: 1) why should we trust the miners not to collude for a 51% attack 2) why should we trust wallets, which aren’t as secure as people think; and 3) why should we trust the consensus mechanism? In response, some members of the audience noted that blockchain appeals to a libertarian element because of the removal of the government from the conversation.
Professor Carla Reyes, Michigan State University College of Law- follow her on Twitter at Carla Reyes (@Prof_CarlaReyes);
Carla talked about crypto corporate governance and the potential fiduciary duties that come out of thinking of blockchains as public trusts or corporations. She explained that governance happens on and off of the blockchain mechanisms through social media outlets such as Redditt. She further noted that many of those who call themselves “passive economic participants” are actually involved in governance because they comment on improvement processes. She also noted the paradox that off chain governance doesn’t always work very well because participants don’t always agree, but when they do agree, it often leads to controversial results like hard forks. Her upcoming article will outline potential fiduciaries (miner and masternode operators for example), their duties, and when they apply. She also asked the provocative question of whether a hard fork is like a Revlon event.
As a former chief privacy officer, I have to confess a bias toward Charlotte’s presentation. She talked about blockchain in healthcare focusing on these questions: will gains in cybersecurity protection outweigh specific issues for privacy or other legal issues (data ownership); what are the practical implications of implementing a private blockchain (consortium, patient-initiated, regulatory-approved); can this apply to other needed uses, including medical device applications; how might this technology work over geographically diverse regulatory structures; and are there better applications for this technology (e.g. connected health devices)? She posited that blockchain could work in healthcare because it is decentralized, has increased security, improves access controls, is more impervious to unauthorized change, could support availability goals for ransomware attacks and other issues, is potentially interoperable, could be less expensive, and could be controlled by regulatory branch, consortium, and the patient. She closed by raising potential legal issues related to broad data sharing, unanswered questions about private implementations, privacy requirements relating to the obligation of data deletion and correction (GDPR in the EU, China’s cybersecurity law, etc); and questions of data ownership in a contract.
Eric closed by discussing the potential tax issue for hard forks. He explained that after a hard fork, a new coin is created, and asked whether that creates income because the owner had one entitlement and now has two pieces of ownership. He then asked whether hard forks are more like corporate reorganizations or spinoffs (which already have statutory taxation provisions) or rather analogous to a change of wealth. Finally, he asked whether we should think about these transactions like a contingent right to do something in the future and how that should be valued.
Stay tuned for more on these and other projects related to blockchain. I will be sure to post them when they are done. But, ignore blockchain at your peril. There’s a reason that IBM, Microsoft, and the State Department are spending money on this technology. If you come to UT on September 15th, I’ll explain how other companies, the UN, NASDAQ, and nation states are using blockchain beyond the cryptocurrency arena.
August 12, 2018 in Commercial Law, Compliance, Conferences, Contracts, Corporate Governance, Corporations, Current Affairs, Entrepreneurship, Human Rights, Law School, Lawyering, Legislation, Marcia Narine Weldon, Research/Scholarhip, Securities Regulation, Shareholders, Teaching, Technology, Writing | Permalink | Comments (0)
Friday, March 30, 2018
Corporate Boycotts, A Change of Heart from CEOs, and H & M's Diversity Initiative- A Roundup of The Week's News Stories
Within the past 24 hours, I've seen at least three news article that led me to reflect on my past blog posts. Rather than write a full post on each article, I've decided to note some observations.
The Tweet That Launched A Boycott (And Maybe a Buycott)
I've been skeptical in the past about whether boycotts work. Perhaps times are changing. This week, Parkland shooting survivor David Hogg tweeted that advertisers on Laura Ingraham's cable show should pull out after she tweeted, "David Hogg Rejected By Four Colleges To Which He Applied and whines about it. (Dinged by UCLA with a 4.1 GPA...totally predictable given acceptance rates.) https://www.dailywire.com/news/28770/gun-rights-provocateur-david-hogg-rejected-four-joseph-curl …" On March 28th, the 17-year old activist responded with "Soooo
@IngrahamAngle what are your biggest advertisers ... Asking for a friend. #BoycottIngramAdverts." He then provided a list of her top twelve sponsors.
As of 8:00 p.m. tonight, the following companies dumped the Fox show, eleven after the talk show host had apologized, stating “On reflection, in the spirit of Holy Week, I apologize for any upset or hurt my tweet caused him or any of the brave victims of Parkland... For the record, I believe my show was the first to feature David immediately after that horrific shooting and even noted how ‘poised’ he was given the tragedy ... As always, he’s welcome to return to the show anytime for a productive discussion.”
The companies that have pulled their advertising include Nutrish, Office Depot, Jenny Craig, Hulu, TripAdvisor, Expedia, Wayfair, Stitch Fix, Nestlé, Johnson & Johnson, Jos A Bank, Miracle Ear, Liberty Mutual and Principal. But will they ever return to the show after the attention moves to something else? Will the sponsors face a "buycott," where Ingraham's fans boycott the boycotters or increase their support of the advertisers that Hogg specifically named but have chosen to stay with Ingraham? Time will tell.
Silicon Valley CEOs Warm to President Trump
Last year, I posted about various CEOs choosing to distance themselves from President Trump by resigning from advisory councils because they disagreed with his actions or positions on everything from immigration to his reaction to the events in Charlottesville. Today, the New York Times reported that some of the same CEOs that bemoaned Trump's election and/or publicly condemned him have now had a change of heart. Apparently, they have more common ground than they thought on areas of tax reform, infrastructure, and looser regulation. I look forward to seeing whether any of these companies or CEOs refrain from criticizing him in the future or, more tellingly, whether they choose to use PAC money or personal funds to support his re-election.
H & M Asks One of Its Lawyers To Lead Diversity Initiative
H & M has lots of problems from underperforming designs (billions in unsold clothes) to continued fallout from its "coolest monkey in the jungle" hoodie. As you may recall, in January, a number of consumers, public figures, and other called for a boycott of the company after a young black boy advertised a green hoodie with the word "monkey." H & M even had to close its store in South Africa. The fast fashion company has now turned to one of its in-house lawyers to lead a 4-person team to focus on diversity and inclusiveness. The lawyer will report directly to the CEO in Stockholm. Notably, the board is all white. Should the board diversify as well? It's hard to say. While I support diversity in the executive ranks and the boardroom, there is no evidence that the monkey hoodie led to the 62% drop in operating profit in Q1. Instead, experts note that consumers just didn't like the selections, even at steep discounts. Further, the average H & M customer probably has no idea about this new diversity initiative and even if the customer knew, it'sdoubtful that would change buying habits. Even so, I applaud H & M for taking concrete steps. The company already produces a compelling Sustainability Report. I look forward to seeing if the company can return to profitabiity while keeping its commitment to diversity.
Friday, March 2, 2018
I live in South Florida and have friends who live in Parkland, Florida, the site of the most recent school shooting. Like many, I've found solace and inspiration in the young survivors and their families who have taken to the streets and visited Washington, D.C. to demand action to prevent the next tragedy. Who knows whether they will succeed where others have failed. I certainly hope so.
I'm more surprised though, with the reactions of major companies such as WalMart, Dicks, REI, United Airlines, Hertz, Symantec and others that have cut ties with the National Rifle Association or have changed their sales practices. Skeptics have observed that corporations take "controversial" stances only when it's cheap or easy and that this stance against the NRA isn't even that controversial. But, it certainly hasn't been "cheap" for Delta Airlines. Notwithstanding the fact that the airline employs 33,000 people in the state, Georgia has passed a bill to eliminate a proposed $50 million tax break because Delta announced plans to end its discount for NRA members.
The gun control issue is the latest in a string of public policy debates that have divided corporations over the past year. CEOs have taken positions on the travel ban, Charlottesville, the NFL protests, the Paris Climate Accord, transgender bathroom laws, and immigration. Some of these positions are more closely tied to their core business than others, and some have been driven by social media activism.
Cautious companies have guidance and momentum on their side when deciding whether to weigh in on social issues. According to the Conscious Capitalism credo, “.. business is good because it creates value, it is ethical because it is based on voluntary exchange, it is noble because it can elevate our existence and it is heroic because it lifts people out of poverty and creates prosperity. Free enterprise capitalism is the most powerful system for social cooperation and human progress ever conceived. It is one of the most compelling ideas we humans have ever had. But we can aspire to even more.” This movement focuses on a higher purpose than generating profits; a stakeholder orientation; leaders that cultivate a culture of care and consciousness; and a conscious culture that permeates the people, purpose, and process.
Blackrock, with $1.7 trillion under management, made that even more clear in its January 2018 letter to CEOs, which stated, among other things:
Society is demanding that companies, both public and private, serve a social purpose. To prosper over time, every company must not only deliver financial performance, but also show how it makes a positive contribution to society. Companies must benefit all of their stakeholders, including shareholders, employees, customers, and the communities in which they operate.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. It will succumb to short-term pressures to distribute earnings, and, in the process, sacrifice investments in employee development, innovation, and capital expenditures that are necessary for long-term growth...
Companies must ask themselves: What role do we play in the community? How are we managing our impact on the environment? Are we working to create a diverse workforce? Are we adapting to technological change? Are we providing the retraining and opportunities that our employees and our business will need to adjust to an increasingly automated world? Are we using behavioral finance and other tools to prepare workers for retirement, so that they invest in a way that will help them achieve their goals?
What does this mean for the future? Is corporate social responsibility more of a business imperative than ever? Boards are now entering proxy season. Will shareholders demand more? Will state and federal governments use their power, as Georgia has, to send a message to the C-Suite? Will consumers engage in boycotts or buycotts? (See here, here, here, here) for my views on boycotts). I look forward to seeing how whether the corporations sustain this conscious capitalism over the long term even when it is no longer "cheap" and "easy."
Friday, February 16, 2018
Corporate Governance, Compliance, Social Responsibility, and Enterprise Risk Management in the Trump/Pence Era
This may be obsolete by the time you read this post, but here are my thoughts on Corporate Governance, Compliance, Social Responsibility, and Enterprise Risk Management in the Trump/Pence Era. Thank you, Joan Heminway and the wonderful law review editors of Transactions: The Tennessee Journal of Business Law. The abstract is below:
With Republicans controlling Congress, a Republican CEO as President, a “czar” appointed to oversee deregulation, and billionaires leading key Cabinet posts, corporate America had reason for optimism following President Trump’s unexpected election in 2016. However, the first year of the Trump Administration has not yielded the kinds of results that many business people had originally anticipated. This Essay will thus outline how general counsel, boards, compliance officers, and institutional investors should think about risk during this increasingly volatile administration.
Specifically, I will discuss key corporate governance, compliance, and social responsibility issues facing U.S. public companies, although some of the remarks will also apply to the smaller companies that serve as their vendors, suppliers, and customers. In Part I, I will discuss the importance of enterprise risk management and some of the prevailing standards that govern it. In Part II, I will focus on the changing role of counsel and compliance officers as risk managers and will discuss recent surveys on the key risk factors that companies face under any political administration, but particularly under President Trump. Part III will outline some of the substantive issues related to compliance, specifically the enforcement priorities of various regulatory agencies. Part IV will discuss an issue that may pose a dilemma for companies under Trump— environmental issues, and specifically shareholder proposals and climate change disclosures in light of the conflict between the current EPA’s position regarding climate change, the U.S. withdrawal from the Paris Climate Accord, and corporate commitments to sustainability. Part V will conclude by posing questions and proposing recommendations using the COSO ERM framework and adopting a stakeholder rather than a shareholder maximization perspective. I submit that companies that choose to pull back on CSR or sustainability programs in response to the President’s purported pro-business agenda will actually hurt both shareholders and stakeholders.
February 16, 2018 in Compliance, Corporate Governance, Corporate Personality, Corporations, CSR, Current Affairs, Employment Law, Marcia Narine Weldon, Securities Regulation, Shareholders | Permalink | Comments (0)
Tuesday, February 13, 2018
I suspect click-bait headline tactics don't work for business law topics, but I guess now we will see. This post is really just to announce that I have a new paper out in Transactions: The Tennessee Journal of Business Law related to our First Annual (I hope) Business Law Prof Blog Conference co-blogger Joan Heminway discussed here. The paper, The End of Responsible Growth and Governance?: The Risks Posed by Social Enterprise Enabling Statutes and the Demise of Director Primacy, is now available here.
To be clear, my argument is not that I don't like social enterprise. My argument is that as well-intentioned as social enterprise entity types are, they are not likely to facilitate social enterprise, and they may actually get in the way of social-enterprise goals. I have been blogging about this specifically since at least 2014 (and more generally before that), and last year I made this very argument on a much smaller scale. Anyway, I hope you'll forgive the self-promotion and give the paper a look. Here's the abstract:
Social benefit entities, such as benefit corporations and low-profit limited liability companies (or L3Cs) were designed to support and encourage socially responsible business. Unfortunately, instead of helping, the emergence of social enterprise enabling statutes and the demise of director primacy run the risk of derailing large-scale socially responsible business decisions. This could have the parallel impacts of limiting business leader creativity and risk taking. In addition to reducing socially responsible business activities, this could also serve to limit economic growth. Now that many states have alternative social enterprise entity structures, there is an increased risk that traditional entities will be viewed (by both courts and directors) as pure profit vehicles, eliminating directors’ ability to make choices with the public benefit in mind, even where the public benefit is also good for business (at least in the long term). Narrowing directors’ decision making in this way limits the options for innovation, building goodwill, and maintaining an engaged workforce, all to the detriment of employees, society, and, yes, shareholders.
The potential harm from social benefit entities and eroding director primacy is not inevitable, and the challenges are not insurmountable. This essay is designed to highlight and explain these risks with the hope that identifying and explaining the risks will help courts avoid them. This essay first discusses the role and purpose of limited liability entities and explains the foundational concept of director primacy and the risks associated with eroding that norm. Next, the essay describes the emergence of social benefit entities and describes how the mere existence of such entities can serve to further erode director primacy and limit business leader discretion, leading to lost social benefit and reduced profit making. Finally, the essay makes a recommendation about how courts can help avoid these harms.
February 13, 2018 in Business Associations, Corporate Governance, Corporate Personality, Corporations, CSR, Current Affairs, Delaware, Joshua P. Fershee, Law and Economics, Lawyering, Legislation, LLCs, Management, Research/Scholarhip, Shareholders, Social Enterprise, Unincorporated Entities | Permalink | Comments (0)
Saturday, February 3, 2018
Time's Up for Board Members: Sexual Misconduct Allegations Against CEOs of Wynn and the Humane Society Should Send a Message
Perhaps I'm a cynic, but I have to admit that I was stunned when the news of hotelier Steve Wynn's harassment allegations at the end of January caused a double-digit drop in stock price. What began as an unseemly story of a $7.5 million settlement to a manicurist at one his of his resorts later morphed into a story about his resignation as head of the finance chair of the Republican National Committee. Not only did he lose that job, he also lost at least $412 million (the company at one point lost over $3 billion in value). His actions have also led regulators in two states to scrutinize his business dealings and settlements to determine whether he has violated "suitability standards." Nonetheless, Wynn has asked his 25,000 employees to stand by him and think of him as their father. The question is, will the board stand by him as it faces potential liability for breach of fiduciary duty?
The Wynn board members should take a close look at what happened with the Humane Society yesterday. That board chose to retain the CEO after ending an investigation into harassment allegations. A swift backlash ensued. Major donors threatened to pull funding, causing the CEO to resign. A number of board members also reportedly resigned. However, not all of the board members resigned out of principle. One female director resigned after stating, " Which red-blooded male hasn’t sexually harassed somebody? ... [w]omen should be able to take care of themselves.” Unfortunately, the reaction of this board member did not surprise me. She's in her 80s and in my twenty years practicing employment law on the defense side, I've heard similar sentiments from many (but not all) men and women of that generation. Indeed, French actress Catherine Deneuve initially joined other women in denouncing the #MeToo movement before bowing to public pressure to apologize. We have five generations of people in the workplace now, and as I have explained here, companies need to reexamine the boundaries. What may seem harmless or "normal" for some may be traumatic or legally actionable to someone else.
As the Wynn and the Humane Society situations illustrate, the sexual harassment issue is now front and center for boards so general counsels need to put the issue on the next board agenda. As I wrote here, boards must scrutinize current executives as well as those they are reviewing as part of their succession planning roles to ensure that the executives have not committed inappropriate conduct. Because definitions differ, companies must clarify the gray areas and ensure everyone knows what's acceptable and what's terminable (even if it's not per se illegal).This means having the head of human resources report to the board that company policies and training don't just check a box. In fact, board members need to ask about the effectiveness of policies and training in the same way that they ask about training on bribery, money laundering, and other highly regulated compliance areas. Boards as part of their oversight obligation must also ensure that there are no uninvestigated allegations against senior executives. Prudent companies will review the adequacy of investigations into misconduct that were closed prematurely or without corroboration.Companies must spend the time and the money with qualified, credible legal counsel to investigate claims that they may not have taken seriously in the past. Because the #MeToo movement shows no signs of abating, boards need to engage in these uncomfortable, messy conversations. If they don't, regulators, plaintiffs' counsel, and shareholders will make sure that they do.
Friday, January 26, 2018
On Wednesday, I spoke with Kimberly Adams, a reporter for NPR Marketplace regarding CSX's decision to require its CEO to disclose health information to the board. I don't have a link to post, sorry. As you may know, CSX suffered a significant stock drop in December when its former CEO died shortly after taking a medical leave of absence and after refusing to disclose information about his health issues. CSX has chosen the drastic step of requiring an annual CEO physical in response to a shareholder proposal filed on December 21st stating, “RESOLVED, that the CEO of the CSX Corporation will be required to have an annual comprehensive physical, performed by a medical provider chosen by the CSX Board, and that results of said physical(s) will be provided to the Board of Directors of the CSX Corporation by the medical provider.” Adams asked my thoughts about a Wall Street Journal article that outlined the company's plans.
I'm not aware of any other company that asks a CEO to provide the results of an annual physical to the board. As I informed Adams, I hope the board has good counsel to avoid running afoul of the Americans with Disabilities Act, HIPAA, the Genetic Information Nondiscrimination Act of 2008, and other state and federal health and privacy laws. While I believe that the board must ensure that it takes its role of succession planning seriously, I question whether this is the best means to achieve that. I also remarked that although a CEO would know in advance that this is a condition of employment and would negotiate with the aid of counsel what the parameters would be, I was concerned about the potential slippery slope. How often would the CEO have to update the board on his/her health condition? Who else would have access to the information? Will this deter talented executives from seeking the top spot at a corporation?
One could argue that the health of the CEO is material information. But if that's the case, why haven't more shareholders made similar proposals? Perhaps there haven't been more of these proposals because the CSX situation was extreme. Shareholders were asked to bless the $84 million compensation package of a man who was so ill that he required a portable oxygen tank but who refused to disclose his condition or prognosis. Hopefully, other companies won't take the same approach.
Wednesday, January 10, 2018
Swedish clothing giant H & M caused a huge stir this week with an ad campaign depicting a young black boy in a sweatshirt that proclaimed him the "Coolest Monkey In the Jungle." The company's misstep is surprising given the public condemnations of the use of the word "monkey" in Europe over the past few years when soccer fans have used it as a slur against black players. Notwithstanding H & M's many apologies, several megastars have denounced the company and some have even pulled their fashion collaborations. As usual, several have called for boycotts of the retailer. But will all of this really matter? The sweatshirt was still for sale in the UK days for days after the controversy erupted, and the Weeknd, one of the megastars who vowed to never work with H & M, still has his 18-piece H & M collection available online and available for purchase on the store's U.S. portal.
I'm headed out of the country tomorrow and in my quest for a new sweater, I glanced in the H & M store in my local mall earlier today. The store was packed and likely with fans of the artists who called for a boycott. No one was walking with picket signs outside. But as I have written about here, here, here, here and at other times on this blog, I'm not sure that young American consumers--H & M's fast fashion demographic--have the staying power to sustain a boycott. Perhaps the star power behind this boycott will make a difference (but I doubt it).Wall Street hasn't punished the store either. The stock did not take a major hit. Moreover, CNBC has reported that in December, the company reported its biggest quarterly drop in ten years. This means that H & M's pre-existing financial woes will make it even more difficult to determine whether a boycott actually affected the bottom line.
Time will tell regarding the success of this latest boycott effort but in the age of hashtag activism, I don't have much confidence in this latest boycott effort.
Tuesday, January 9, 2018
The new semester is upon us, and AALS (as it tends to) ran right into the new semester. Joan Heminway provided a nice overview of some of her activities, including her recognition as an outstanding mentor by the Section on Business Associations, and it was a pleasure to see her recognized for her tireless and consistent efforts to make all of us better. Congratulations, Joan, and thank you!
I, too, had a busy conference, with most of it condensed to Friday and Saturday. (As a side note, it was pretty great to run along the water in 55-65 degree weather. As much as I love New York and appreciate San Francisco and DC, I'd be quite content with AALS moving between San Diego and New Orleans.) I spoke on a panel with my co-bloggers, as Joan noted, about shareholder proposals, and I spoke on a panel about the green economy and sustainability, which was also fun. It's nice when I am able to spend some time with a focus on my two main areas of research.
As to our panel on shareholder proposals, I thought I'd share a few of my thoughts. First, as I have explained in the past, I am not anti-activist investor, even though I often think their proposals are wrong headed. I think shareholder (and hedge fund) activist can add value, even when they are wrong, as long as directors continue to exercise their judgment and lead the firm appropriately.
Second, although I tend to have a bias for staying the course and leaving many laws and regulations alone, I am open to some changes for shareholder proposals. The value of the current system (especially one that has been in place for some time) is that everyone knows the rules, which means there is some level of efficiency for all the players.
That said, the threshold for shareholder proposals has been in places since the 1950s. The Financial Choice Act looks to move the proxy threshold from $2,000 and one-year holdings to a 1%/three-year hurdle. That is a pretty big move. Updating the $2,000 threshold from 1960 would mean raising the threshold to around $16,000, so a move to what can be millions may be too much. But $16,000 (basically updating for inflation), would make some sense to me, too. Anyway, just a few simple thoughts to start the year. Hope your classes are starting well.
Monday, January 8, 2018
Last week, I had the privilege of attending and participating in the 2018 annual meeting of the Association of American Law Schools (#aals2018). I saw many of you there. It was a full four days for me. The conference concluded on Saturday with the program captured in the photo above--four of us BLPB co-bloggers (Stefan, me, Josh, and Ann) jawing about shareholder proposals--as among ourselves and with our engaged audience members (who provided excellent questions and insights). Thanks to Stefan for organizing the session and inspiring our work with his article, The Inclusive Capitalism Shareholder Proposal. I learned a lot in preparing for and participating in this part of the program.
Earlier that day, BLPB co-blogger Anne Tucker and I co-moderated (really, Anne did the lion's share of the work) a discussion group entitled "A New Era for Business Regulation?" on current and future regulatory and de-regulatory initiatives. In some part, this session stemmed from posts that Anne and I wrote for the BLPB here, here, and here. I earlier posted a call for participation in this session. The conversation was wide-ranging and fascinating. I took notes for two essays I am writing this year. A photo is included below. Regrettably, it does not capture everyone. But you get the idea . . . .
In between, I had the honor of introducing Tamar Frankel, this year's recipient of the Ruth Bader Ginsburg Lifetime Achievement Award, at the Section for Women in Legal Education luncheon. Unfortunately, the Boston storm activity conspired to keep Tamar at home. But she did deliver remarks by video. A photo (props to Hari Osofsky for getting this shot--I hope she doesn't mind me using it here) of Tamar's video remarks is included below.
Tamar has been a great mentor to me and so many others. She plans to continue writing after her retirement at the end of the semester. I plan to post more on her at a later time.
On Friday, I was recognized by the Section on Business Associations for my mentoring activities. On Thursday, I had the opportunity to comment (with Jeff Schwartz) on Summer Kim's draft paper on South Korean private equity fund regulation. And on Wednesday, I started the conference with a discussion group entitled "What is Fraud Anyway?," co-moderated by John Anderson and David Kwok. My short paper for that discussion group focused on the importance of remembering the requirement of manipulative or deceptive conduct if/as we continue to regulate securities fraud in major part under Section 10(b) of, and Rule 10b-5 under, the Securities Exchange Act of 1934, as amended.
That summary does not, of course, include the sessions at which I was merely in the audience. Many of the business law sessions were on Friday and Saturday. They were all quite good. But I already am likely overstaying my welcome for the day. Stay tuned here for any BLPB-reated sessions for next year's conference. And in between, there's Law and Society, National Business Law Scholars, and SEALS, all of which will have robust business law programs.
Good luck in starting the new semester. Some of you, I know, are already back in the classroom. I will be Wednesday morning. I know it will be a busy 14 weeks of teaching!
Tuesday, December 19, 2017
A recent case in Washington state introduced me to some interesting facets of Washington's recreational marijuana law. The case came to my attention because it is part of my daily search for cases (incorrectly) referring to limited liability companies (LLCs) as "limited liability corporations." The case opens:
In 2012, Washington voters approved Initiative Measure 502. LAWS OF 2013, ch. 3, codified as part of chapter 69.50 RCW. Initiative 502 legalizes the possession and sale of marijuana and creates a system for the distribution and sale of recreational marijuana. Under RCW 69.50.325(3)(a), a retail marijuana license shall be issued only in the name of the applicant. No retail marijuana license shall be issued to a limited liability corporation unless all members are qualified to obtain a license. RCW 69.50.331(1)(b)(iii). The true party of interest of a limited liability company is “[a]ll members and their spouses.”1 Under RCW 69.50.331(1)(a), the Washington State Liquor and Cannabis Board (WSLCB) considers prior criminal conduct of the applicant.2
(b) No license of any kind may be issued to:. . . .(iii) A partnership, employee cooperative, association, nonprofit corporation, or corporation unless formed under the laws of this state, and unless all of the members thereof are qualified to obtain a license as provided in this section;
True party of interest: Persons to be qualified
Sole proprietorship: Sole proprietor and spouse.General partnership: All partners and spouses.Limited partnership, limited liability partnership, or limited liability limited partnership: All general partners and their spouses and all limited partners and spouses.Limited liability company: All members and their spouses and all managers and their spouses.Privately held corporation: All corporate officers (or persons with equivalent title) and their spouses and all stockholders and their spouses.Publicly held corporation: All corporate officers (or persons with equivalent title) and their spouses and all stockholders and their spouses.
Multilevel ownership structures: All persons and entities that make up the ownership structure (and their spouses).
(1) A corporation has the officers described in its bylaws or appointed by the board of directors in accordance with the bylaws.(2) A duly appointed officer may appoint one or more officers or assistant officers if authorized by the bylaws or the board of directors.(3) The bylaws or the board of directors shall delegate to one of the officers responsibility for preparing minutes of the directors' and shareholders' meetings and for authenticating records of the corporation.(4) The same individual may simultaneously hold more than one office in a corporation.
Requirement for and duties of board of directors.
(1) Each corporation must have a board of directors, except that a corporation may dispense with or limit the authority of its board of directors by describing in its articles of incorporation, or in a shareholders' agreement authorized by RCW 23B.07.320, who will perform some or all of the duties of the board of directors.(2) Subject to any limitation set forth in this title, the articles of incorporation, or a shareholders' agreement authorized by RCW 23B.07.320:(a) All corporate powers shall be exercised by or under the authority of the corporation's board of directors; and(b) The business and affairs of the corporation shall be managed under the direction of its board of directors, which shall have exclusive authority as to substantive decisions concerning management of the corporation's business.
(4) Persons who exercise control of business - The WSLCB will conduct an investigation of any person or entity who exercises any control over the applicant's business operations. This may include both a financial investigation and/or a criminal history background.
December 19, 2017 in Corporations, Current Affairs, Entrepreneurship, Family Business, Joshua P. Fershee, Legislation, Licensing, LLCs, Management, Nonprofits, Partnership, Shareholders, Unincorporated Entities | Permalink | Comments (0)
Thursday, December 7, 2017
Two weeks ago, I asked whether companies were wasting time on harassment training given the flood of accusations, resignations, and terminations over the past few weeks. Having served as a defense lawyer on these kinds of claims and conducted hundreds of trainings, I know that most men generally know right from wrong before the training (and some still do wrong). I also know that in many cases, people look the other way when they see or hear about the complaints, particularly if the accused is a superstar or highly ranked employee. Although most men do not have the power and connections to develop an alleged Harvey Weinstein-type "complicity machine" to manage payoffs and silence accusers, some members of management play a similar role when they ignore complaints or rumors of inappropriate or illegal behavior.
The head in the sand attitude that executives and board members have displayed in the Weinstein matter has led to a lawsuit arguing that Disney knew or should have known of Weinstein's behavior. We may see more of these lawsuits now that women have less fear of speaking out and Time honored the "Silence Breakers" as the Person of the Year. As I read the Time article and watched some of the "silence breakers" on television, it reminded me of 2002, when Time honored "The Whistleblowers." Those whistleblowers caused Congress to enact sweeping new protection under Sarbanes-Oxley. Because of all of the publicity, companies around the country are now working with lawyers and human resources experts to review and revamp their antiharassment training and complaint mechanisms. As a result, we will likely see a spike in internal and external complaints. But do we need more than lawsuits? Would more women in the boardroom and the C-Suite make a difference in corporate culture in general and thereby lead to more gender equity?
Last week, Vĕra Jourová, the EU Commissioner for Justice and Gender Equality put forth some proposals to redress the gender pay gap in Member States’ businesses. She recommends an increase in the number of women on boards for companies whose non-executive Boards are more than 60% male. These companies would be required to “prioritize” women when candidates of “equal merit” are being considered for a position. Germany, Sweden, and the Netherlands have already previously rejected a similar proposal.
I'm generally not in favor of quotas because I think they produce a backlash. However, I know that many companies here and abroad will start to recruit more female directors and executives in an effort to appear on top of this issue. Will it work? We will soon see. After pressure from institutional investors such as BlackRock and State Street to increase diversity, women and minorities surpassed 50% of S & P open board seats in 2017. Stay tuned.
Wednesday, October 11, 2017
Earlier this week, I had the pleasure of hearing a talk about universal proxies from Scott Hirst, Research Director of Harvard’s Program on Institutional Investors.
By way of background, last Fall under the Obama Administration, the SEC proposed a requirement for universal proxies noting:
Today’s proposal recognizes that few shareholders can dedicate the time and resources necessary to attend a company’s meeting in person and that, in the modern marketplace, most voting is done by proxy. This proposal requires a modest change to address this reality. As proposed, each party in a contest still would bear the costs associated with filing its own proxy statement, and with conducting its own independent solicitation. The main difference would be in the form of the proxy card attached to the proxy statement. Subject to certain notice, filing, form, and content requirements, today’s proposal would require each side in a contest for the first time to provide a universal proxy card listing all the candidates up for election.
The Council of Institutional Investors favors their use explaining, “"Universal" proxy cards would let shareowners vote for the nominees they wish to represent them on corporate boards. This is vitally important in proxy contests, when board seats (and in some cases, board control) are at stake. Universal proxy cards would make for a fairer, less cumbersome voting process.”
The U.S. Chamber of Commerce has historically spoken out against them, arguing:
Mandating a universal ballot, also known as a universal proxy card, at all public companies would inevitably increase the frequency and ease of proxy fights. Such a development has no clear benefit to public companies, their shareholders, or other stakeholders. The SEC has historically sought to remain neutral with respect to interactions between public companies and their investors, and has always taken great care not to implement any rule that would favor one side over the other. We do not understand why the SEC would now pursue a policy that would increase the regularity of contested elections or cause greater turnover in the boardroom.
I can't speak for the Chamber, but I imagine one big concern would be whether universal proxies would provide proxy advisors such as ISS and Glass Lewis even more power than they already have with institutional investors. When I asked Hirst about this, he did not believe that the level of influence would rise significantly.
Hirst’s paper provides an empirical study that supports his contention that reform would help mitigate some of the distortions from the current system. It’s worth a read, although he acknowledges that in the current political climate, his proposal will not likely gain much traction. The abstract is below:
Contested director elections are a central feature of the corporate landscape, and underlie shareholder activism. Shareholders vote by unilateral proxies, which prevent them from “mixing and matching” among nominees from either side. The solution is universal proxies. The Securities and Exchange Commission has proposed a universal proxy rule, which has been the subject of heated debate and conflicting claims. This paper provides the first empirical analysis of universal proxies, allowing evaluation of these claims.
The paper’s analysis shows that unilateral proxies can lead to distorted proxy contest outcomes, which disenfranchise shareholders. By removing these distortions, universal proxies would improve corporate suffrage. Empirical analysis shows that distorted proxy contests are a significant problem: 11% of proxy contests at large U.S. corporations between 2001 and 2016 can be expected to have had distorted outcomes. Contrary to the claims of most commentators, removing distortions can most often be expected to favor management nominees, by a significant margin (two-thirds of distorted contests, versus one-third for dissident nominees). A universal proxy rule is therefore unlikely to lead to more proxy contests, or to greater success by special interest groups.
Given that the arguments made against a universal proxy rule are not valid, the SEC should implement proxy regulation. A rule permitting corporations to opt-out of universal proxies would be superior to the SEC’s proposed mandatory rule. If the SEC chooses not to implement a universal proxy regulation, investors could implement universal proxies through private ordering to adopt “nominee consent policies.