Wednesday, September 3, 2014
(Note: This is a cross-posted multiple part series from WVU Law Prof. Josh Fershee from the Business Law Prof Blog and Prof. Elaine Waterhouse Wilson from the Nonprofit Law Prof Blog, who combined forces to evaluate benefit corporations from both the nonprofit and the for-profit sides. The previous installment can be found here (NLPB) and here (BLPB).)
What It Is: So now that we’ve told you (in Part I) what the benefit corporation isn’t, we should probably tell you what it is. The West Virginia statute is based on Model Benefit Corporation Legislation, which (according to B Lab’s website) was drafted originally by Bill Clark from Drinker, Biddle, & Reath LLP. The statute, a copy of which can be found, not surprisingly, at B Lab’s website, “has evolved based on comments from corporate attorneys in the states in which the legislation has been passed or introduced.” B Lab specifically states that part of its mission is to pass legislation, such as benefit corporation statutes.
As stated by the drafter’s “White Paper, The Need and Rationale for the Benefit Corporation: Why It is the Legal Form that Best Addresses the Needs of Social Entrepreneurs, Investors, and, Ultimately, the Public” (PDF here), the benefit corporation was designed to be “a new type of corporate legal entity.” Despite this claim, it’s likely that the entity should be looked at as a modified version of traditional corporation rather than at a new entity.
This is because the Benefit Corporation Act appears to leave a lot of room for the traditional business corporations act to serve as a gap-filler. West Virginia Code § 31F-1-103(c), for example, explains, “The specific provisions of this chapter control over the general provisions of other chapters of this code.” Thus, the benefit corporation provisions supplant the traditional business corporation act where stated specifically, such as with regard to fiduciary duties, but general provisions of the business corporations act apply where the benefit corporation act is silent, such as with regard to dissolution.
In contrast, the West Virginia Nonprofit Corporation Act is a broader act that discusses dissolution, mergers, and other items specifically in a way that more clearly indicates the nonprofit is a distinct, rather than modified, entity form. Furthermore, a benefit corporation is actually formed under the Business Corporations Act: “A benefit corporation shall be formed in accordance with article two, chapter thirty-one-d of this code, and its articles as initially filed with the Secretary of State or as amended, shall state that it is a benefit corporation.” W. Va. Code § 31F-2-201.
So what makes a benefit corporation unique?
1. Corporate purpose - The traditional West Virginia business corporation is created for the purpose “of engaging in any lawful business unless a more limited purpose is set forth in the articles of incorporation.” W. Va. Code § 31D-3-301. Under the Benefit Corporation Act, “A benefit corporation shall have as one of its purposes the purpose of creating a general public benefit.” Id. § 31F-3-301. A specific benefit may be stated as an option, but is not required. Note similarly that a part of the corporation’s purpose must be for general public benefit, but that benefit need not be a primary, substantial, significant or other part of the corporation’s purpose.
For purpose of comparison, the low-profit limited liability company (or L3C) typically has a much more onerous purpose requirement. For example, the Illinois L3C law requires
(a) A low-profit limited liability company shall at all times significantly further the accomplishment of one or more charitable or educational purposes within the meaning of Section 170(c)(2)(B) of the Internal Revenue Code of 1986, 26 U.S.C. 170(c)(2)(B), or its successor, and would not have been formed but for the relationship to the accomplishment of such charitable or educational purposes.
2. Standard of conduct – The statute requires, in § 31F-4-401, that the directors and others related to the entity:
(1) Shall consider the effects of any corporate action upon:
(A) The shareholders of the benefit corporation;
(B) The employees and workforce of the benefit corporation, its subsidiaries, and suppliers;
(C) The interests of customers as beneficiaries of the general or specific public benefit purposes of the benefit corporation;
(D) Community and societal considerations, including those of each community in which offices or facilities of the benefit corporation, its subsidiaries, or suppliers are located;
(E) The local and global environment;
(F) The short-term and long-term interests of the benefit corporation, including benefits that may accrue to the benefit corporation from its long-term plans and the possibility that these interests and the general and specific public benefit purposes of the benefit corporation may be best served by the continued independence of the benefit corporation; and
(G) The ability of the benefit corporation to accomplish its general and any specific public benefit purpose;
(emphasis added). While these are significant mandatory considerations, they are nothing more than considerations. Directors and others “[n]eed not give priority to the interests of a particular person referred to in subdivisions (1) and (2) of this section over the interests of any other person unless the benefit corporation has stated its intention to give priority to interests related to a specific public benefit purpose identified in its articles.” § 31F-4-401(a)(3).
As such, while directors must consider the general public benefit of their decisions (and any specific benefits if so chosen), it is not clear the ultimate decision making of a benefit corporation director would necessarily be any different than a traditional corporation. That is, a director of a benefit corporation could, for example, consider the impacts on a town of closing a plant (and determine it would be hard on the town and the workforce), but ultimately decide to close the plant anyway.
Furthermore, many corporations seek to serve communities and benefit the public. McDonald’s, Coca-Cola, and many others already have programs to benefit the public, so it appears that many traditional corporations have already volunteered to meet and exceed the standards of the West Virginia benefit corporations act.
3. Formation – An entity becomes a benefit corporation by saying so when filing initial articles of incorporation with the Secretary of State, § 31F-2-201, or by amending the articles of an already created corporation, § 31F-2-202. Presumably, this serves a notice function, informing the benefit corporation’s current and potential constituents that there is the possibility that profit maximization will not be (or may not be) the corporation’s primary goal. The notice function does not work in reverse, however, as benefit corporation status does guarantee that public benefits have any primacy at all, merely that such benefits will be considered.
4. Termination - Termination of the benefit corporation status is allowed and is achieved by changing the articles of incorporation in the same manner in which traditional corporations modify their articles. § 31D-10-1003. As a result, it doesn’t appear that there is anything in the statute from preventing a benefit corporation from reaping the public relations or capital raising upside of being a benefit corporation, and thereafter abandoning the status should it become inconvenient. Query whether to the extent a transfer to a benefit corporation could be deemed a gift for a public purpose, the Attorney General might have oversight over the contribution in the same manner as it has oversight in cy pres and similar proceedings.
5. Enforcement – Third parties have no right of action to enforce the benefit goals unless they are allowed to use derivatively as “specified in the articles of incorporation or bylaws of the benefit corporation.” Id. § 31F-4-403. Otherwise, a direct action of the corporation or derivative actions from a director or shareholder are the only ways to commence a “benefit enforcement proceeding.” Again, the statute does not give the Attorney General specific statutory authorization to proceed on the basis that a member of the public may have transferred funds to the benefit corporation in reliance upon its benefit corporation status.
So, the statute provides the option for stating and pursuing general and specific benefits, but there are not a lot of structural assurances to anyone—investor, lender, public—that a benefit corporation will actually benefit anyone other than its equity holders. But benefit corporations are required to consider doing so. This is not to say there isn’t some value. As Haskell Murray has noted,
Directors would benefit from having a primary master and a clear objective. . . . [But,] [t]he mandate that a benefit corporation pursue a "general public benefit purpose" is too vague because it does not provide a practical way for directors to make decisions.
As such, an entity may create a clear set of priorities and guidelines that could provide useful and lead to benefits, but the benefit corporation act most certainly does not mandate that.
Finally, although most of the above is focused on the West Virginia benefit corporation law, much of it applies to the other versions of such laws in other states. Cass Brewer notes
Effective July 1, 2014, West Virginia’s benefit corporation statute generally follows the B-Lab model legislation, but among other things relaxes the “independence” tests for adopting third-party standards and does not require the annual benefit report to disclose director compensation.
As an additional resource, Haskell Murray provides a detailed chart of the state-by-state differences, here.
Next up: Part III - So Why Bother? Isn’t the Business Judgment Rule Alive and Well?
EWW & JPF