The front page of today's WSJ featured a story about Mylan NV's failure to disclose a potential conflict of interest transaction with Rodney Piatt, its vice chairman, lead independent director, and compensation-committee chief. On the surface it looks like a classic conflict, and corporate law students and professors alike know that's a big no-no. As a director, Piatt has a fiduciary duty to look out for the best interests of Mylan--i.e., to pay the least possible amount. Of course, if he's on the other side of the transaction, human nature is to try to get the most money possible. Ergo, conflict.
The WSJ article suggests that failure to disclose the transaction violates a securities law that requires disclosure of related party transactions. The company says there was no related party transaction because "The day before Mylan announced plans to build the new headquarters, a company managed and partly owned by Mr. Piatt sold a 7-acre site for $1 to an entity owned by a business partner in Southpointe II, according to property records reviewed by The Wall Street Journal. The partner’s firm sold the same land to Mylan for $2.9 million later the same day."
Yeah, it sounds fishy to me, too. But according to Mylan, "Mr. Piatt was not a party to either transaction” and “had no direct or indirect material interest in the transactions.” Clearly they're arguing it doesn't count as a related party transaction because Piatt is not a party.
OK, maybe. Maybe. But Mylan might have another securities law problem: its code of ethics, which specifically covers directors (p. 3). Codes of ethics tend to be broader in scope than related party transactions. Nobody (but me) ever thinks about them, but Sarbanes-Oxley required that ethics codes be disclosed--along with any waivers the board of directors grants directors and senior officers (For you history buffs, this provision was the result of Andy Fastow's related-party transactions with Enron, all blessed by the board via ethics waivers).
Mylan's has a lengthy section on conflicts of interest. From the introduction:
We must avoid personal interests that conflict with the interests of Mylan, or that might influence or appear to influence our judgment or actions in performing our duties. The word “appear” is most important. Even where there is no actual conflict of interest, the appearance of such a conflict is damaging because it can undermine trust among personnel and jeopardize the company’s standing with our customers, regulators, shareholders and others.
It's not clear what Piatt's relationship is to the business partner in Southpointe II to whom he sold the land for a dollar. But
Neither you nor any family member(s) may directly or indirectly participate in any business relationship with Mylan, other than your relationship as a director, officer, employee of Mylan, contractor or agent, unless such an arrangement has been approved by the OGC. Executive officers and directors must also obtain approval from the committee regarding such ar- rangements. Any such arrangement that has not been approved by the OGC or the Committee, as applicable, is a violation of the code and is prohibited.
Except as provided in this code, you are prohibited from acquiring any interest in a company that competes with Mylan or does business with Mylan, such as a vendor, supplier or customer, without the prior written consent of the OGC. Executive officers and members of the board must also obtain approval of the Committee before acquiring any such interest.
What's supposed to happen if there is the appearance of a conflict?
If a situation arises in which there is an actual, apparent or potential conflict of interest, you must disclose the matter to the OGC. If required, the OGC will escalate the matter to the Senior Executive Compliance Committee (committee).
If the committee finds that such conflict is not material and does not appear to be of a nature that it would influence the business decisions of those involved, the committee may grant a waiver in its sole discretion.
At Piatt's level, any such waiver should be disclosed as an 8-K, about which I know a little something. I didn't see one in December of 2013.
It's hard to find cases of where companies don't disclose waivers when they should have--you have to ferret out the nondisclosure first. It looks like the WSJ might have here.
Update: I forgot, Section 406 covers only the CEO, CFO, and CAO, so Piatt's waiver wouldn't have needed to be disclosed. He would still need to get one, arguably. And since the corporation has adopted a code of ethics that purports to apply to its board, if it is not following the required procedures that information would arguably be material.
The thing that gets me about codes of ethics is that they seem largely like empty corporatespeak. But they all address conflicts of interest. Conflicts of interest are the one thing that shareholders really might care about--because they're a sign that corporate insiders are really just out to line their pockets at the company's expense. But nobody seems to take the codes seriously, and so conflicts often get ignored. Or that's my hunch--I don't know, because aside form the top three financial officers, waivers don't have to be disclosed!
I co-teach a year-long Business Ethics class that culminates in the students writing and presenting a case study. (It occurs to me that I haven't blogged much about this class, and I will rectify that, but that's for another post.)
Today I want to talk about a case study that focused on textbook pricing-- undergraduate, because there is more information available. One student recounted a single Intro Bio textbook that cost $500. I remember thinking books were expensive back in my college days, but $500! How does textbook inflation compare with other metrics? According to the GAO, the price of textbooks increased 82% between 2002-2021, tuition and fees increased by 89%, and overall consumer prices grew by 28% (this stat and the others come via the excellent case study).
Where does all that money go? I've always wondered. According to this US News article, 21.6 %of the purchase price of a new book goes to the bookstore, 1% to shipping, and 77.4% to the publisher. And according to the same article, in 2008 (the last available data) 15.4% of the purchase price went to marketing, 11.7% to authors, 32.2% to paper, printing, and overhead.
We told the students to be neutral in the case study, so here's the publishers' position: students increasingly want products that accompany textbooks, including study guides and applications like online quizzes and homework for teachers. These things cost money to develop.
While the case study focused on college textbooks, of course the students talked about their experiences in law school. The consensus is that casebooks are way too expensive. There's a lot of frustration over the fact that rental prices and digital casebooks are not much less expensive than new ones. The students heartily condemned the widespread practice of changing a few pages in a casebook and then trotting out a new edition to avoid cannibalization from the secondary market.
I had pushed the case study author to address the professor's role in all this--not the casebook authors, but the professor selecting a casebook. Because, as the students are all too aware, this isn't a pure market, it's a mediated one. Students enrolled in a course are captive to their professor's textbook choices. Which brings me to my ethical question: what responsibility do I as a teacher have to my students in selecting a casebook? Should I pick the cheapest one? How much, if at all, should price matter to me? Some of my colleagues have even developed online casebooks, that are either free or available at a very low cost.
I can't go that far. I switch Corporations casebooks every year because 1) I'd get bored otherwise and 2) the students would have the notes from prior years and they would phone it in. And, frankly, I'm not excited about the prospect in compiling and editing a bunch of cases--there are plenty of people out there who have spent a lot of time thinking about how to structure a casebook, and they've done a better job than I could. The compromise I've currently struck is never to select a casebook in the first year of a new edition. That way at least the students have the choice of buying used. I'm not sure this is the right balance, but it's one I can feel okay about, at least for now. More deeply, it seems like as we move to digital publishing something has got to give.
It has been a pleasure to guest-blog for the last two weeks here at the Glom. (Previous posts available here: one, two, three, four, five, six, seven, eight, and nine.) This final post will introduce the book that Lynn Stout and I propose writing to give better direction to business people in search of ethical outcomes and to support the teaching of ethics in business schools.
Sometimes bad ethical behavior is simply the result of making obviously poor decisions. Consider the very human case of Jonathan Burrows, the former managing director at Blackrock Assets group. Burrows’s two mansions outside London were worth over $6 million U.S., but he ducked paying a little over $22 U.S. in train fare each way to the City for five years. Perhaps Burrows had calculated that being fined would be less expensive than the inconvenience of complying with the train fare rules. Unluckily, the size of his $67,200 U.S total repayment caught the eye of Britain’s Financial Conduct Authority, which banned Burrows from the country’s financial industry for life. That’s how we know about his story.
But how do small bad ethical choices snowball into large-scale frauds? How do we go from dishonesty about a $22 train ticket to a $22 trillion loss in the financial crisis? We know that, once they cross their thresholds for misconduct, individuals find it easier and easier to justify misconduct that adds up and can become more serious. And we know that there is a problem with the incentive structure within organizations that allows larger crises to happen. How do we reach the next generation of corporate leaders to help them make different decisions?
Business schools still largely fail to teach about ethics and legal duties. In fact, research finds “a negative relationship between the resources schools possess and the presence of a required ethics course.” Moreover, psychological studies demonstrate that the teaching of economics without a strong ethical component contributes to a “culture of greed.” Too often business-school cases, especially about entrepreneurs, venerate the individual who bends or breaks the rules for competitive advantage as long as the profit and loss numbers work out. And we fail to talk enough about the positive aspects of being ethical in the workplace. The situation is so bad that Luigi Zingales of the University of Chicago asks point-blank if business schools incubate criminals.
New business-school accreditation guidelines adopted in April 2013 will put specific pressure on schools to describe how they address business ethics. Because business schools are accredited in staggered five-year cycles, every business school that is a member of the international accreditation agency will have to adopt ethics in its curriculum sometime over the next few years.
We hope that the work outlined in my blogposts, discussed at greater length in my articles, and laid out in our proposed book will be at the forefront of this trend to discuss business ethics and the law. We welcome those reading this blog to be a part of the development of this curriculum for our next generation of business leaders.
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My previous blogposts (one, two, three, four, five, six, seven, and eight) discussed the dangers of granting intracorporate conspiracy immunity to agents who commit coordinated wrongdoing within an organization. The last two blogposts (here and here) highlighted the harm that public and judicial frustration with this immunity inflicts on alternative doctrines.
In addition to exacerbating blind CEO turnover, substituting alternative doctrines for prosecuting intracorporate conspiracy affects an executive’s incentives under Director’s and Officer’s (D&O) liability insurance. This post builds on arguments that I have made about D&O insurance in articles here and here.
In traditional conspiracy prosecutions, the Model Penal Code (MPC) provides an affirmative defense for renunciation. The MPC’s standard protects the actor, who “after conspiring to commit a crime, thwarted the success of the conspiracy, under circumstances manifesting a complete and voluntary renunciation of his criminal purpose.” This means that the executive who renounces an intracorporate conspiracy faces no charges.
In contrast with conspiracy prosecutions, responsible corporate officer doctrine and its correlates fail to reward the executive who changes course to mitigate damages or to abandon further destructive behavior. Although the size of the damages may be smaller with lesser harm if the executive renounces an organization’s course of conduct, the executive’s personal career and reputation may still be destroyed by entry of a judgment. Modest whistle-blower protections are ineffectual.
Specifically, because of the way that indemnification and D&O insurance function, the entry of judgment has become an all-or-nothing standard: an employee’s right to indemnification hinges on whether the employee is found guilty of a crime or not. To receive indemnification under Delaware law, for example, an individual must have been “successful on the merits or otherwise in defense of any action, suit or proceeding.” Indemnification is repayment to the employee from the company; D&O insurance is a method that companies use to pass on the cost of indemnification and may contain different terms than indemnification itself.
Indemnification and D&O insurance are not a minor issues for executives. In fact, under many circumstances, employees have a right to indemnification from an organization even when the alleged conduct is criminal. Courts have acknowleged that “[i]ndemnification encourages corporate service by capable individuals by protecting their personal financial resources from depletion by the expenses they incur during an investigation or litigation that results by reason of that service.” And when hiring for an executive board, “Quality directors will not serve without D&O coverage.” Because of this pressure from executives, as many as ninety-nine percent of public U.S. companies carry D&O insurance.
So what does this standard mean for executives prosecuted under responsible corporate officer doctrine instead of for traditional conspiracy? Executives are incentivized either not to get caught, or to perpetrate a crime large enough that the monetary value of the wrongdoing outweighs the potential damage to the executive’s career. Because an executive’s right to indemnification hinges on whether he is found guilty of a crime or not, he has an enormous incentive to fight charges to the end instead of pleading to a lesser count. Thus, unless the executive has an affirmative defense to charges, like renunciation in traditional conspiracy law, there is no safety valve. Litigating responsible corporate officer doctrine cases creates a new volatile high-wire strategy. Moreover, as discussed in my last blogpost, responsible corporate officer doctrine imposes actual blind “respondeat superior” liability. Regardless of the merits, the executive may be penalized. So you can see the take-home message for executives: go ahead and help yourself to the largest possible slice pie on your way out the door.
I argue that in sending this message, and in many other ways, our current law on corporate crime is badly broken. My last blogpost for the Glom will introduce the book that Lynn Stout and I propose writing to give better direction to business people in search of ethical outcomes.
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My previous blogposts (one, two, three, four, five, six, and seven) discussed why conspiracy prosecutions were the best method to penalize coordinated wrongdoing by agents within an organization. Using alternative doctrines to impose liability on behavior that would otherwise be recognized as an intracorporate conspiracy results in flawed incentives and disproportionate awards.
The fundamental problem with substituting responsible corporate officer doctrine and control person liability for reforming the intracorporate conspiracy doctrine is that these alternative doctrines represent exactly what Professor Martin objects to: actual imposition of blind “respondeat superior” liability. For example, under these doctrines, “in most federal courts, it is not necessary to show that the corporate official being charged had a culpable state of mind.” Instead, the issue before the court is merely whether the officer had control and responsibility for the alleged actions. Accordingly, it is not a defense to control person liability that the officer did not “knowingly participate in or independently commit a violation of the Act.”
But simply penalizing the officer who is in the wrong place at the wrong time does little to define and encourage best practices. Moreover, with these and other explosive hazards for corporate service, it should be no surprise that top executives are demanding and receiving ever-increasing compensation for often short-term positions. Since 2009, the year that the NSP case establishing “control person” liability was settled, the discrepancy in pay between top management and the average worker has been growing dramatically. In 2013, the CEO of J.C. Penny Co., for example, was exposed for making 1,795 times what the average U.S. department store employee made. From 2009 to 2013, as measured across Standard & Poor’s 500 Index (S&P 500) of companies, “the average multiple of CEO compensation to that of rank-and-file workers” has risen to 204, an increase of twenty percent.
It is true that the financial crisis did reduce executive compensation packages before 2009, and that there has been a historical trend towards the growth of executives’ salaries as a multiple of average workers’ salaries. For example, “[es]timates by academics and trade-union groups put the number at 20-to-1 in the 1950s, rising to 42-to-1 in 1980 and 120-to-1 by 2000.” But the jump in executives’ salaries from 2009 has been extraordinary. The new emphasis on vicarious liability for individuals under the responsible corporate officer doctrine since that date must be considered part of executives’ demands for such high compensation in exchange for their risky positions.
The average duration of a CEO’s time in office has diminished as well. In 2000, the average tenure of a departing S&P 500 CEO in the U.S. was ten years. By 2010, it was down to eight years. In 2011, merely a year later, the average tenure of a Fortune 500 CEO was barely 4.6 years. In 2013, that former CEO of J.C. Penny Co. served for only eighteen months.
With an eighteen-month tenure, how much can the chief executive of a large company discover about the wrongdoing that his or her new company is committing? Furthermore, how much can that person design and institute good preventative measures to guide his or her subordinates to avoid that harm? A blindly revolving door for CEOs does not help those interested in effectively reducing the wrongdoing of agents within the corporation. Incentives without intracorporate conspiracy immunity would be different because they would reward the agent who abandons a conspiracy. (More about this argument here, here, here, and here.)
My next blogpost will examine how substituting alternative doctrines for prosecuting intracorporate conspiracy affects incentives under Director’s and Officer’s (D&O) liability insurance.
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My previous blogposts (one, two, three, four, five, and six) discussed why conspiracy prosecutions should be used to reach coordinated wrongdoing by agents within an organization. The intracorporate conspiracy doctrine has distorted agency law and inappropriately handicaps the ability of tort and criminal law to regulate the behavior of organizations and their agents.
My Intracorporate Conspiracy Trap article argues that the intracorporate conspiracy doctrine is not properly based in agency law, and that it should most certainly not be applied throughout tort law and criminal law. As a result of the immunity granted by the doctrine, harmful behavior is ordered and performed without consequences, and the victims of the behavior suffer without appropriate remedy. My Corporate Conspiracy Vacuum article argues that public and judicial frustration with the lack of accountability for corporate conspiracy has now warped the doctrines around it.
Courts have used a wide variety of doctrines to hold agents of enterprises responsible for their actions that should have prosecuted as intracorporate conspiracy. Some of these doctrines include:
But the new applications of these alternative doctrines are producing distortions that make the doctrines less stable, less predictable, and less able to signal proper incentives to individuals within organizations.
An example of how piercing the corporate veil has been used to defeat intracorporate conspiracy immunity can be seen in the Morelia case. A previous blogpost discussed how the intracorporate conspiracy doctrine has defanged RICO prosecutions of agents and business entities. In Morelia, which was a civil RICO case, the federal district court, obviously outraged by defendants’ behavior in the case, explicitly permitted plaintiffs to pierce the corporate veil to avoid application of the intracorporate conspiracy doctrine. In a creative twist invented from whole cloth to link the two doctrines, the Morelia court overruled its magistrate judge’s recommendation to announce:
"Since the court has determined that plaintiffs have properly alleged that the corporate veil should be pierced, the individual defendants may be liable for corporate actions and any distinction created by the intra-corporate doctrine does not exist."
Regarding its test for piercing the corporate veil, the Morelia court further overruled its magistrate’s recommendation by focusing on plaintiffs’ arguments regarding undercapitalization, and its decision included only a single footnote about the disregard of corporate formalities.
The Morelia court is not alone in its frustration with the intracorporate conspiracy doctrine and in its attempt to link analysis under the intracorporate conspiracy doctrine with the stronger equitable tenets of piercing the corporate veil. More subtly, courts across the country have started to entangle the two doctrines’ requirements as intracorporate conspiracy immunity has become stronger and courts have increasingly had to rely on piercing the corporate veil as an ill-fitting alternative to permit conspiracy claims to proceed. Even large public companies should take note. No public company has ever been pierced, but a bankruptcy court recently reverse-pierced corporate veils of the Roman Catholic Church, which is far from a single-person “sham” corporation. My Corporate Conspiracy Vacuum article discusses additional examples and repercussions for incentives under each of these alternative doctrines.
My next blogpost will examine how frustration with intracorporate conspiracy immunity has led to volatility in responsible corporate officer doctrine and related control person liability. Ironically, executive immunity from conspiracy charges fuels counterproductive CEO turnover.
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My previous blogposts (one, two, three, four, and five) introduced why conspiracy prosecutions should be used to reach wrongdoing by agents within an organization. The 2012 prosecution of Monsignor Lynn for twelve years of transferring predator priests from parish to parish at the command and for the benefit of the Archdiocese of Philadelphia was defeated by the intracorporate conspiracy doctrine. Moreover, this was not the first time that the Roman Catholic Church had used the doctrine to help its bureaucrats escape liability for suppressing sex abuse cases.
In 1997, employees of the Roman Catholic Church in Connecticut were alleged—very much like Lynn—to have covered up the sexual misconduct of a priest, enabling him to continue to abuse children entrusted to the Church’s care by virtue of his office. When sued for civil conspiracy by the victims, the employees’ defense was that they were acting in the best interest of the corporation.
The Connecticut court found that the test for whether an agent is acting within the scope of his duties “is not the wrongful nature of the conspirators’ action but whether the wrongful conduct was performed within the scope of the conspirators’ official duties.” If the wrongful conduct was performed within the scope of the conspirators’ official duties, the effect of applying the intracorporate conspiracy doctrine is to find that there was no conspiracy. Because covering up the priest’s sex abuse was in the best interest of the corporate organization, the court found that the employees were all acting on behalf of the corporation. The court never reached the issue of whether the employees’ actions rose to the level of a civil conspiracy. Under the intracorporate conspiracy doctrine, it was a tautology that no conspiracy could be possible.
This case is interesting not only because it documents the way that the intracorporate conspiracy doctrine protects enterprises from inquiry into conspiracies, but also because of the subsequent history of its allegations. The full extent of the Bridgeport Diocese’s wrongdoings—if current public knowledge is indeed complete—only came to light in December 2009, twelve years after the 1997 case. It took twelve years, the combined resources of four major newspapers, an act displaying public condemnation of the Roman Catholic Church by members of the state legislature, and finally a decision by the U.S. Supreme Court to release the documents that could have become the basis of the intracorporate conspiracy claim in 1997. There is still no conspiracy suit or any criminal charge against the Diocese. Additional details about the case are available in my article The Intracorporate Conspiracy Trap. The article will be published soon in the Cardozo Law Review, and it is available in draft form here.
Astonishingly, none of the extensive news coverage about the sexual abuse cases in Bridgeport over those additional twelve years has connected these facts to the original 1997 case defeated by application of the intracorporate conspiracy doctrine. If the intracorporate conspiracy doctrine had not provided immunity, the case might have revealed the Diocese’s pattern of wrongdoing long beforehand and in a much more efficient way.
My next blogpost reveals additional dangers from the spread of the intracorporate conspiracy doctrine: frustration with the intracorporate conspiracy doctrine has started to distort other areas of law.
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My previous blogposts (one, two, three, and four) introduced why conspiracy prosecutions should be used to reach wrongdoing by agents within a business organization. The same legal analysis applies to religious organizations.
We should have been able to charge Monsignor Lynn and the Archdiocese of Philadelphia that directed his actions to hide the sexual abuse by priests with criminal conspiracy. Instead, Pennsylvania charged Lynn with two things: child endangerment and conspiracy with the priests.
As international news outlets later reported, Lynn could not be guilty of child endangerment because the state’s statute could not apply to an administrative church official who did not directly supervise children.
Lynn could not be guilty of conspiracy with the priests because he did not share their “particular criminal intent.” As the jury understood, Lynn was not trying to help a predator priest get from parish to parish so that “he can continue to enjoy what he likes to do.” Lynn was trying to protect the reputation of his employer, the Archdiocese—if the priests benefitted, that was a side issue.
So why didn’t the prosecution charge Lynn and the Archdiocese with conspiracy? It was the Archdiocese that directly coordinated and profited from Lynn’s actions. The intracorporate conspiracy doctrine, as discussed before, would bar that prosecution. In Pennsylvania, it is “well-settled that a corporation cannot conspire with its subsidiary, its agents, or its employees.”
Finally, considering other options, Lynn could not have been charged with possible crimes such as obstruction of justice. Lynn was too good: Lynn and the Archdiocese were so successful at covering up the sexual abuse and silencing victims, there was no ongoing investigation to obstruct. “Aiding and abetting” the Archdiocese’s cover-up of the sex abuse would have been difficult to pursue (see more here) and is not allowed under RICO in the Third Circuit.
My next blogpost will demonstrate that the Monsignor Lynn case was also part of a pattern by the Roman Catholic Church in America to use the intracorporate conspiracy doctrine to hide the coordinated wrongdoing of its agents to cover-up sexual abuse by priests. Fifteen years before prosecutors attempted to try Monsignor Lynn, the silenced Connecticut sex-abuse case showed the Church how effective this defense could be.
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My previous blogposts (one, two, and three) introduced the topic of how the intracorporate conspiracy doctrine prevents the prosecution of coordinated wrongdoing by individuals within organizations. This post illustrates the doctrine’s effect in the context of a specific organization—here a religious one: the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Philadelphia and the systematic transfer of predator priests. This post is based on my article The Intracorporate Conspiracy Trap to be published soon in the Cardozo Law Review. The article is available in draft form here.
For twelve years, from 1992 to 2004, as Secretary for Clergy, Monsignor William Lynn’s job within the Philadelphia Archdiocese was to supervise priests, including the investigation of sex-abuse claims. In 1994, Monsignor Lynn compiled a list of thirty-five “predator” priests within the archdiocese. He compiled the list from secret church files containing hundreds of child sex-abuse complaints. On the stand, Lynn testified that he hoped that the list would help his superiors to address the growing sex-abuse crisis within the Archdiocese. But for twelve years Lynn merely re-assigned suspected priests, and he hid the abuse within the church. His superiors never acted on the list that Lynn gave them—in fact, they ordered all copies of the list destroyed—and Lynn never contacted outside authorities. As late as 2012, one of the “predator” priests on Lynn’s list was still serving in a parish.
All parties agree that Lynn’s actions in transferring priests who molested children allowed those priests to continue to abuse children, sheltered the priests from potential prosecution, and directly protected the Philadelphia Archdiocese’s reputation.
In fact, Lynn’s actions had been ordered by the archbishop on behalf of the Archdiocese. Lynn reported what he was doing to his superiors, who rewarded Lynn with twelve years of employment and a prominent position within the Archdiocese for doing his job as they saw it. Moreover, the archbishop himself inadvertently revealed the existence of the number thirty-five “predator” priests to the media, and he was the one who ordered all copies of the list to be shredded to keep it from being discovered in legal proceedings.
The instinct here is that this behavior—the transferring of predator priests to cover-up the sexual abuse of children—should have been illegal for Monsignor Lynn to pursue. But the Commonwealth could not prosecute Monsignor Lynn and the Archdiocese for conspiracy. Furthermore, immunity for Lynn’s behavior is now the rule in most state and federal jurisdictions around the country. As described in an earlier blogpost, the intracorporate conspiracy doctrine provides immunity to an enterprise and its agents from conspiracy prosecution, based on the legal fiction that an enterprise and its agents are a single actor incapable of the meeting of two minds to form a conspiracy.
My next blogpost will further investigate why this behavior was not illegal under our current system, and how we should have tried Monsignor Lynn.
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My first and second blogposts introduced why conspiracy prosecutions are particularly important for reaching the coordinated actions of individuals when the elements of wrong-doing may be delegated among members of the group.
So where are the prosecutions for corporate conspiracy??? The Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act of 1970 (“RICO”, 18 U.S.C.A. §§ 1961 et seq.), no longer applies to most business organizations and their employees. In fact, business organizations working together with outside agents can form new protected “enterprises.”
What’s going on here? In this area and many other parts of the law, we are witnessing the power of the intracorporate conspiracy doctrine. This doctrine provides immunity to an enterprise and its agents from conspiracy prosecution, based on the legal fiction that an enterprise and its agents are a single actor incapable of the meeting of two minds to form a conspiracy. According to the most recent American Law Reports survey, the doctrine “applies to corporations generally, including religious corporations and municipal corporations and other governmental bodies. The doctrine applies to all levels of corporate employees, including a corporation’s officers and directors and owners who are individuals.” Moreover, it now extends from antitrust throughout tort and criminal law.
What is the practical effect of this doctrine? The intracorporate conspiracy doctrine has distorted agency law and inappropriately handicaps the ability of tort and criminal law to regulate the behavior of organizations and their agents. Obedience to a principal (up to a point) should be rewarded in agency law. But the law should not immunize an agent who acts in the best interest of her employer to commit wrongdoing. Not only does the intracorporate conspiracy doctrine immunize such wrongdoing, but the more closely that an employer orders and supervises the employee’s illegal acts, the more the employer is protected from prosecution as well.
My next blogpost illustrates how the intracorporate conspiracy doctrine operates to defeat prosecutions for coordinated wrongdoing by agents within an organization. Let’s examine the case of Monsignor Lynn.
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In my previous blogpost, I granted the merit of defense counsel’s argument that the actions of discrete individual defendants—when the law is not permitted to consider the coordination of those actions—may not satisfy the elements of a prosecutable crime.
But what is the coordination of individuals for a wrongful common purpose? That’s a conspiracy. And, for exactly the reasons that defense counsel articulates, these types of crimes cannot be reached by other forms of prosecution. The U.S. Supreme Court has recognized that conspiracy is its own animal. “[C]ollective criminal agreement—partnership in crime—presents a greater potential threat to the public than individual delicts.” When we consider the degree of coordination necessary to create the financial crisis, we are not talking about a single-defendant mugging in a back alley—we are talking about at least the multi-defendant sophistication of a bank robbery.
Conspiracy prosecutions for the financial crisis have some other important features. First, the statute of limitations would run from the last action of a member of the group, not the first action as would be typical of other prosecutions. This means that many crimes from the financial crisis could still be prosecuted (answering Judge Rakoff’s concern). Second, until whistle-blower protections are improved to the point that employees with conscientious objections to processes can be heard, traditional conspiracy law provides an affirmative defense to individuals who renounce the group conspiracy. By contrast, the lesson Wall Street seems to have learned from the J.P. Morgan case is not to allow employees to put objections into writing. Third, counter to objections that conspiracy prosecutions may be too similar to vicarious liability, prosecutors would have to prove that each member of the conspiracy did share the same common intent to commit wrongdoing. The employee shaking his head “no” while saying yes would not be a willing participant, but many other bankers were freely motivated by profit at the expense of client interest to cooperate with a bank’s program.
My next blogpost will ask: where are the prosecutions for corporate conspiracy?
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It is a pleasure to be guest-blogging here at The Glom for the next two weeks. My name is Josephine Nelson, and I am an advisor for the Center for Entrepreneurial Studies at Stanford’s business school. Coming from a business school, I focus on practical applications at the intersection of corporate law and criminal law. I am interested in how legal rules affect ethical decisions within business organizations. Many thanks to Dave Zaring, Gordon Smith, and the other members of The Glom for allowing me to share some work that I have been doing. For easy reading, my posts will deliberately be short and cumulative.
In this blogpost, I raise the question of what is broken in our system of rules and enforcement that allows employees within business organizations to escape prosecution for ethical misconduct.
Public frustration with the ability of white-collar criminals to escape prosecution has been boiling over. Judge Rakoff of the S.D.N.Y. penned an unusual public op-ed in which he objected that “not a single high-level executive has been successfully prosecuted in connection with the recent financial crisis.” Professor Garett’s new book documents that, between 2001 and 2012, the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) failed to charge any individuals at all for crimes in sixty-five percent of the 255 cases it prosecuted.
Meanwhile, the typical debate over why white-collar criminals are treated so differently than other criminal suspects misses an important dimension to this problem. Yes, the law should provide more support for whistle-blowers. Yes, we should put more resources towards regulation. But also, white-collar defense counsel makes an excellent point that there were no convictions of bankers in the financial crisis for good reason: Prosecutors have been under public pressure to bring cases against executives, but those executives must have individually committed crimes that rise to the level of a triable case.
And why don’t the actions of executives at Bank of America, Citigroup, and J.P. Morgan meet the definition of triable crimes? Let’s look at Alayne Fleischmann’s experience at J.P. Morgan. Fleischmann is the so-called “$9 Billion Witness,” the woman whose testimony was so incriminating that J.P. Morgan paid one of the largest fines in U.S. history to keep her from talking. Fleischmann, a former quality-control officer, describes a process of intimidation to approve poor-quality loans within the bank that included an “edict against e-mails, the sabotaging of the diligence process,… bullying, [and] written warnings that were ignored.” At one point, the pressure from superiors became so ridiculous that a diligence officer caved to a sales executive to approve a batch of loans while shaking his head “no” even while saying yes.
None of those actions in the workplace sounds good, but are they triable crimes??? The selling of mislabeled securities is a crime, but notice how many steps a single person would have to take to reach that standard. Could a prosecutor prove that a single manager had mislabeled those securities, bundled them together, and resold them? Management at the bank delegated onto other people elements of what would have to be proven for a crime to have taken place. So, although cumulatively a crime took place, it may be true that no single executive at the bank committed a triable crime.
How should the incentives have been different? My next blogpost will suggest the return of a traditional solution to penalizing coordinated crimes: conspiracy prosecutions for the financial crisis.
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In this post, which follows our earlier discussion of legal strategy, we’ll offer examples of companies situated within each of the five pathways. As Robert and I mentioned in our article, most companies follow the compliance pathway. Such companies insource legal compliance through their in-house legal department, or they may choose to partner with an external compliance verification service. A firm such as ISN, for example, has built a business handling compliance issues for corporations and their subcontractors. According to the Society of Compliance and Corporate Ethics, compliance is a thriving industry due to the increased legal penalties and regulations that companies face in today’s heightened legal environment.
The avoidance pathway is less frequent, given the high stakes and liability attached to this type of strategy. General Motors may have engaged in avoidance if it misled regulators about its faulty ignition switches. Avoidance issues tend to be costly to deal with, given the loss of trust and enhanced penalties that arise from this behavior.
The more interesting and rare pathways involve prevention, value, and transformation. An interesting and controversial prevention legal strategy involves trademark policing, which, in its most egregious form, devolves into the unethical and legally dubious practice of trademark bullying. For example, Chik-fil-A employs an aggressive strategy that targets large and small companies alike and uses the threat of trademark litigation to prevent anyone from encroaching upon its trademarked brands and brand equity. Setting aside the overreaching and legally dubious aspects of this approach, some companies legitimately use a preventive legal strategy that involves cease and desist letters, litigation, and U.S. Patent and Trademark Office administrative oppositions to protect the value of their brands and advertising. The Chik-fil-A case serves as a useful reminder, however, that aggressive legal strategies may push the boundaries of ethical behavior, sound legal argument, and public opinion.
Two recent examples illustrate how employing a legal strategy in the value pathway can generate positive and tangible financial returns. The first instance involves hedge funds investing in a corporate acquisition target and then filing suit in Delaware to challenge the valuation and seek an appraisal from the court. This legal strategy is referred to as appraisal arbitrage. Many of these cases either settle or result in substantially higher prices for the party seeking the appraisal.
Another value strategy that has been in the headlines recently involves tax inversions. Burger King’s recent decision to acquire Canada’s Tim Horton’s will yield business synergies, but it also exploits a legal maneuver allowed under current tax law permitting a company acquiring a foreign entity to reincorporate in the foreign jurisdiction. By reincorporating in Canada, Burger King will effectively lower its tax rate from 35% to 15%.
The last and rarest of legal strategies is transformation. This occurs when the top executives in a corporation integrate law as a core aspect of the firm’s business model to achieve sustainable competitive advantage. Few companies are able to achieve this strategic pathway, and it’s certainly not for everyone. One company that notoriously used law to achieve abnormally large market share and margins in the ticket processing industry was Ticketmaster. The ticket service provider used venue ticket licensing contracts that included several key provisions such as long term renewable exclusivity terms (up to 5 years), and more infamously, fee sharing provisions. Ticketmaster’s business model was, essentially, to take the bad rap for charging exorbitant convenience fees and sharing those fees with the venue, thus contractually locking them into a highly profitable and exclusive business system. It didn’t hurt that Ticketmaster’s pioneering CEO Fred Rosen was a Wall Street attorney turned impresario.
Another company that is showing signs of attempting to pursue a transformative legal strategy is Tesla Motors. Tesla’s recent announcement to offer open licensing terms for its battery and charging station patents illustrates a pioneering mentality that seeks to build a business ecosystem with other auto manufacturers. By doing so, Tesla has made a major legal bet that giving up patent exclusivity rights in the short term will yield long-term competitive advantage by helping to diffuse electric battery and recharging technology. The other legal strategy Tesla has pursued relates to its pioneering distribution model of direct sales to the consumer, bypassing the traditional dealership model established for conventional automobiles. To achieve this direct-to-customer model, Tesla has engaged state regulators to achieve exemptions from state dealership franchise laws. Tesla is clearly strategizing and innovating along many fronts that involve business, technology and law. It remains to be seen, however, whether these legal strategies will offer Tesla a long-term sustainable competitive advantage.
In our next and last post, we’ll discuss our experience teaching the five pathways of legal strategy to business students and how it has been a valuable resource in the classroom.
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This week’s Economist has a column praising my UCLAW colleague Stephen Bainbridge’s and University of Chicago law professor Todd Henderson’s creative proposal, published in the Stanford Law Review, to replace individual directors with professional-services firms acting as Board Service Providers (BSPs). (That article can be accessed here.) The column nicely summarizes the possible impact of such a change:
“Messrs Bainbridge and Henderson argue that this would require only a simple legal change but could revolutionise the stick-in-the-mud world of boards. It would replace today’s nod-and-a-wink arrangements with a market in which rival BSPs compete. It would create a new category of professional director. And it would allow BSPs to exploit economies of scale to recruit the best board members, introduce more rigorous training programmes and develop the best proprietary knowledge. Now, even the most diligent board member can only draw on his or her experience. BSPs would be able to draw on the expertise of hundreds. This would increase the chances that corporate incompetence will be corrected, corporate malfeasance found out and corporate self-dealing, in the form of inflated pay, countermanded.”
The BSP idea is very creative. (Frankly, I am always puzzled by the extent to which academics have trouble appreciating creativity. Perhaps—and I’m speculating here—traits such as creativity are weakly correlated with succeeding in the academic tournament—getting high LSAT scores, writing good law school exams, getting judicial clerkships, and placing law review articles?) I also agree that introducing market competition by enabling firms to compete on performance will likely benefit consumers and shareholders, as well as increase the leverage of the board vis-à-vis executive officers.
That said, I worry about uncontrolled expenditures as BSPs find yet another reason to bill the corporation another $250,000 for yet another “critical project.” My prior experience as general counsel of a corporation (plus my six years of practicing law in a law firm) make me skeptical of the incentives of partners within firms (“Bill, bill, bill!”). I worry about the ratio of the value of services to cost. While we may see a decrease in executive compensation as a result of increased board leverage, are we going to see an increase in the effective compensation (i.e., including billings) of the board? My guess is yes.
I also worry about the audit/gatekeeping function of the Board. After all, we have plenty of experience with auditors being firms, rather than individuals. And the record there doesn’t look so hot. Remember Enron and Arthur Andersen? And remember Ted Eisenberg’s and Jonathan Macey’s empirical study suggesting that Andersen was not an outlier but typical? While gatekeeping theory provides that market gatekeepers, such as investment banks and accounting firms, are incentivized to work hard to prevent malfeasance out of fear that their longstanding reputations will be damaged, the reality is that the reputational informational markets are noisy and manipulable. Moreover, the incentives of the firm’s agent – the functional gatekeeper – may diverge from the incentives of the firm. In other words, large firms may suffer from principal-agent problems, as has often been alleged with David Duncan, the lead audit partner responsible for the Enron account at Andersen. (In prior work, I wrote about the incentives of firms vs. individuals for the audit/gatekeeping function.)
But I suppose Henderson and Bainbridge would respond that still, those reputation markets would work better with firms competing with one another than the status quo—little to no competition with respect to individual directors (for various reasons).
Perhaps there’s room for compromise. If you’ve been following the accounting profession, you know that the PCAOB (the body that regulates the accounting of public companies) in an effort to improve the transparency of audits has proposed to require the disclosure of the name of the engagement partner for the most recent period’s audit. Also, it has been suggested that the engagement partner individually sign the audit report. It should not be surprising that accounting firms uniformly dislike these suggestions. This indicates that they are probably good ideas. Perhaps, then, as a means of dealing with the principal-agent problem within BSPs themselves and to ensure that the incentives of the firm’s agents (the persons who actually sit in board meetings) are more properly aligned, similar measures should be taken.
The blogosphere is filled with chatter about the recent decision Wal-Mart Stores, Inc. v. Indiana Electrical Workers Pension Trust Fund IBEW, Del. Supr., No. 614, 2013 (July 23, 2014), in which the Delaware Supreme Court en banc explicitly endorsed the Garner exception to the attorney-client privilege in a Section 220 books-and-records proceeding. But there been less attention showered on Maritza Munich, the general counsel of Walmart International, who resigned. As the court opinion tells us, Munich tried to stop the bribery scandal that was unfolding at the world’s largest retailer. As summed up nicely by Michael Scher of the FCPA Blog (HT to Stephen Bainbridge):
“As head of international compliance, Munich insisted on an investigation of a ‘campaign of bribery’ in Mexico and the top manager who led it. According to ongoing media reports, the top executives of Wal-Mart blocked the investigation. She then ‘resigned,’ while other executives were promoted.
Munich’s career at Wal-Mart was stolen from her. Instead of incentive pay, a bonus, and a stellar career, she lost out on the recognition, respect and financial security she deserved for doing a [compliance officer’s] job when it mattered most.”
I think it is important to circulate stories of lawyers who take ethical stands against those who hold power over them. Although martyrs and whistleblowers are common subjects of films and books, as I’ve argued in prior work and based on a plethora of research in sociology departments and management schools, such acts of courage and integrity are rare. But they do happen and, when we encounter such an instance, we should take a moment and celebrate that person's courage.