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.
Two recent developments in the law and practice of business include: (1) the advent of benefit corporations (and kindred organizational forms) and (2) the application of crowdfunding practices to capital-raising for start-ups. My thesis here is that these two innovations will become disruptive legal technologies. In other words, benefit corporations and capital crowdfunding will change the landscape of business organization substantially.
A disruptive technology is one that changes the foundational context of business. Think of the internet and the rise of Amazon, Google, etc. Or consider the invention of laptops and the rise of Microsoft and the fall of the old IBM. Automobiles displace horses, and telephones make the telegraph obsolete. The Harvard economist Joseph Schumpeter coined a phrase for the phenomenon: “creative destruction.”
Technologies can be further divided into two types: physical technologies (e.g., new scientific inventions or mechanical innovations) and social technologies (such as law and accounting). See Business Persons, p. 1 (citing Richard R. Nelson, Technology, Institutions, and Economic Growth (2005), pp. 153–65, 195–209). The legal innovations of benefit corporations and capital crowdfunding count as major changes in social technologies. (Perhaps the biggest legal technological invention remains the corporation itself.)
1. Benefit corporations began as a nonprofit idea, hatched in my hometown of Philadelphia (actually Berwyn, Pennsylvania, but I’ll claim it as close enough). A nonprofit organization called B Lab began to offer an independent brand to business firms (somewhat confusingly not limited to corporations) that agree to adopt a “social purpose” as well as the usual self-seeking goal of profit-making. In addition, a “Certified B Corporation” must meet a transparency requirement of regular reporting on its “social” as well as financial progress. Other similar efforts include the advent of “low-profit” limited liability companies or L3Cs, which attempt to combine nonprofit/social and profit objectives. In my theory of business, I label these kind of firms “hybrid social enterprises.” Business Persons, pp. 206-15.
A significant change occurred in the last few years with the passage of legislation that gave teeth to the benefit corporation idea. Previously, the nonprofit label for a B Corp required a firm to declare adherence to a corporate constituency statute or to adopt a similar constituency by-law or other governing provision which signaled that a firm’s sense of its business objective extended beyond shareholders or other equity-owners alone. (One of my first academic articles addressed the topic at an earlier stage. See “Beyond Shareholders: Interpreting Corporate Constituency Statutes.” I also gave a recent video interview on the topic here.) Beginning in 2010, a number of U.S. states passed formal statutes authorizing benefit corporations. One recent count finds that twenty-seven states have now passed similar statutes. California has allowed for an option of all corporations to “opt in” to a “flexible purpose corporation” statute which combines features of benefit corporations and constituency statutes. Most notably, Delaware – the center of gravity of U.S. incorporations – adopted a benefit corporation statute in the summer of 2013. According to Alicia Plerhoples, fifty-five corporations opted in to the Delaware benefit corporation form within six months. Better known companies that have chosen to operate as benefit corporations include Method Products in Delaware and Patagonia in California.
2. Crowdfunding firms. Crowdfunding along the lines of Kickstarter and Indiegogo campaigns for the creation of new products have become commonplace. And the amounts of capital raised have sometimes been eye-popping. An article in Forbes relates the recent case of a robotics company raising $1.4 million in three weeks for a new project. Nonprofit funding for the microfinance of small business ventures in developing countries seems also to be successful. Kiva is probably the best known example. (Disclosure: my family has been an investor in various Kiva projects, and I’ve been surprised and encouraged by the fact that no loans have so far defaulted!)
However, a truly disruptive change in the capital funding of enterprises – perhaps including hybrid social enterprises – may be signaled by the Jumpstart Our Business Start-ups (JOBS) Act passed in 2012. Although it is limited at the moment in terms of the range of investors that may be tapped for crowdfunding (including a $1 million capital limit and sophisticated/wealthy investors requirement), a successful initial run may result in amendments that may begin to change the face of capital fundraising for firms. Judging from some recent books at least, crowdfunding for new ventures seems to have arrived. See Kevin Lawton and Dan Marom’s The Crowdfunding Revolution (2012) and Gary Spirer’s Crowdfunding: The Next Big Thing (2013).
What if easier capital crowdfunding combined with benefit corporation structures? Is it possible to imagine the construction of new securities markets that would raise capital for benefit corporations -- outside of traditional Wall Street markets where the norm of “shareholder value maximization” rules? There are some reasons for doubt: securities regulations change slowly (with the financial status quo more than willing to lobby against disruptive changes) and hopes for “do-good” business models may run into trouble if consumer markets don’t support them strongly. But it’s at least possible to imagine a different world of business emerging with the energy and commitment of a generation of entrepreneurs who might care about more in their lives than making themselves rich. Benefit corporations fueled by capital crowdfunding might lead a revolution: or, less provocatively, may at least challenge traditional business models that for too long have assumed a narrow economic model of profit-maximizing self-interest. James Surowiecki, in his recent column in The New Yorker, captures a more modest possibility: “The rise of B corps is a reminder that the idea that corporations should be only lean, mean, profit-maximizing machines isn’t dictated by the inherent nature of capitalism, let alone by human nature. As individuals, we try to make our work not just profitable but also meaningful. It may be time for more companies to do the same.”
So a combination of hybrid social enterprises and capital crowdfunding doesn’t need to displace all of the traditional modes of doing business to change the world. If a significant number of entrepreneurs, employees, investors, and customers lock-in to these new social technologies, then they will indeed become “disruptive.”
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Corporate disclosure, especially in securities regulation, has been a standard regulatory strategy since the New Deal. Brandeisian “sunlight” has been endorsed widely as a cure for nefarious inside dealings. An impressive apparatus of regulatory disclosure has emerged, including annual and quarterly reports enshrined in Forms 10K and 10Q. Other less comprehensive disclosures are also required: for initial public offerings and various debt issuances, as well as for unexpected events that require an update of available information in the market (Form 8K).
For the most part, corporate disclosure has focused on financial information: for the good and sufficient reason that it is designed to protect investors – especially investors who are relatively small players in large public trading markets. Some doubts have been raised about the effectiveness of this kind of disclosure and, indeed, the effectiveness of mandatory disclosure in general. A recent book by Omri Ben-Shahar and Carl Scheider, More Than You Wanted to Know: The Failure of Mandated Disclosure, advances a wide-ranging attack on all mandatory disclosure. (I think that their attack goes too far: I’ll be coming out with a short review of the book for Penn Law’s RegBlog called “Defending Disclosure”). Assuming, though, that much financial disclosure makes sense, what about expanding it to include other activities of business firms?
Consider three types of nonfinancial information that might usefully be disclosed: information about a business firm’s activities with respect to politics, the natural environment, and religion.
1. Politics. One good candidate for enhanced corporate disclosure concerns business activities in politics. Lobbying laws require various disclosures, and various campaign finance laws do too. It is possible to obscure actual political spending through the complexity of corporate organization. (For a nice graphic of the Koch brothers’ labyrinth assembled by the Center for Responsive Politics, see here.) Good reporters can ferret out this information – but they need to get access to it in the first place. My colleague Bill Laufer has been an academic leader in an effort to encourage public corporations to disclose political spending voluntarily, with Wharton’s Zicklin Center for Business Ethics Research teaming up with the nonpartisan Center for Political Accountability to rank companies with respect to their transparency about corporate political spending. The rankings have been done for three years now, and there are indications of increased business participation. Recently, even this voluntary effort has been attacked by business groups such as the U.S. Chamber of Commerce for being “anti-business.” See letter from U.S. Chamber of Commerce quoted here. Jonathan Macey of Yale Law School has also objected to the rankings in an article in the Wall Street Journal, arguing that the purpose of political disclosure is somehow part of “a continuing war against corporate America.” These objections, however, seem overblown and misplaced. What is so wrong about asking for disclosure about the political spending of business firms? One can Google individuals to see their record of supporting Presidential and Congressional candidates via the Federal Election Commission’s website, yet large businesses should be exempt? Political spending by corporations and other business should be disclosed in virtue of democratic ideals of transparency in the political process. Media, non-profit groups, political parties, and other citizens may then use the resulting information in political debates and election campaigns. Also, it seems reasonable for shareholders to expect to have access to this kind of information.
In Business Persons, I’ve gone further to argue (in chapter 7) that both majority and dissenting opinions in Citizens United appear to support mandatory disclosure as a good compromise strategy for regulation. One can still debate the merits of closer control of corporate spending in politics (and I believe that though business corporations indeed have “rights” to political speech these rights do not necessarily extend to unlimited spending directed toward political campaigns). It seems to me hard to dispute that principles of political democracy – and the transparency of the process – support a law of mandatory disclosure of corporate spending in politics.
2. Natural environment. Increasingly, many large companies are also issuing voluntary reports regarding their environmental performance (and often adding in other “social impact” elements). Annual reports issued under the International Standards Organization (the ISO 14000 series), the Global Reporting Initiative, and the Carbon Disclosure Project are examples. The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has also established a mandatory program for greenhouse gas emissions reporting, which is tailored to different industrial sectors. One can argue about whether these kinds of disclosures are sufficiently useful to justify their expense, but my own view is that they help to encourage business firms to take environmental concerns seriously. Many firms use this reporting to enhance their internal efficiency (often leading to financial bottom-line gains). As important, however, is the engagement of firms to consider environmental issues – and encouraging them to act as “part of the solution” rather than simply as a generating part of the problem.
One caveat that is relevant to all nonfinancial disclosure regimes: The scope of firms required to disclose should be considered. I do not believe that the case is convincing that only public reporting companies under the securities laws should be included. (For one influential argument to the contrary, see Cynthia A. Williams, “The Securities and Exchange Commission and Corporate Social Transparency,” 112 Harvard Law Review 1197 (1999)). Instead, it makes to sense for different agencies appropriate to the particular issue at hand to regulate: the Federal Election Commission for political disclosures and the EPA for environmental disclosures.
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Thanks to Gordon Smith and my Wharton colleague David Zaring for inviting me as a guest blogger on The Conglomerate. I am a new entrant in the blogosphere here, and I appreciate this invitation very much.
What follows is a written version of remarks that I presented at the Society for Business Ethics in Philadelphia on August 3 at a panel on “Corporate Personhood – For or Against or Whether It Even Matters?” organized by Kendy Hess of Holy Cross. (Thanks, Kendy!) The panel also included excellent presentations on the topic by two of my Wharton colleagues, Gwen Gordon and Amy Sepinwall, as well as Kendy. A longer version will be presented in a conference in London in September, and a written version will also be included in a book that I'm co-editing with Craig Smith called The Moral Responsibility of Firms (forthcoming in Oxford University Press). It will also inform chapter 1 of a book that is underway (and still forthcoming) currently called Rethinking the Firm: An Interdisciplinary Interpretation (also under contract with OUP).
In these posts, I've been kindly invited to revisit some themes of my new book on Business Persons: A Legal Theory of the Firm. So I hope that I'll generate some interest in the book: or perhaps make some of the ideas there more accessible in "blog-sized" pieces. The following contribution is a first entry.
Let me be provocative first and say affirmatively: Corporations are legal persons and it matters. The thesis is qualified, however, by the fact that to say that corporations are persons is a conclusion that only then begins arguments about what it actually means in practice with respect to particular issues. The fact that corporations are “persons” means only that we provide them – through law – with certain capacities and powers, and certain rights and obligations. It remains to be decided what the nature and limits of these capacities and powers, and rights and obligations, may and will be.
Three main arguments support my claim.
1. Firms exist. Some economists (and lawyers following them) have argued that firms do not really exist. They are mere fictions, they say, and any serious epistemological analysis must look past the “legal fiction” of the firm – or the “corporation” in the form we are discussing here – to the actual human beings who are involved. Although this methodological reduction may be useful for some kinds of analysis (economic modeling, etc.), it is wrong from a realistic legal and social perspective. Firms exist because the law has evolved to say that they exist. They are constructions of human relationships that are socially sanctioned and legally recognized. They are “fictions” in the sense that they are created through the artificial mechanisms of law and government. They are also “real” because people acting under law and in society believe in them and make them real. Firms are therefore what I’ve called “real fictions”: both nominalism and realism are right, but only when they are combined together into a nominalist realism. See Business Persons, ch. 1. Philosophers such as Margaret Gilbert, John Searle, and Philip Pettit support this view. People acting in social groups form collective realities, which are reinforced and articulated by organizational law. Business firms – including for-profit corporations – are in this sense social constructions. Corporations are like money and nation-states. Exxon-Mobil and Patagonia are as real as China and the United States. They exist because we believe in them. We act as if they exist – and so as social constructions they exist. They have power and authority.
2. Firms are persons. The method of legal recognition is to bestow “personality”: The law recognizes an individual human being as a “person” who has “standing” to bring or defend a claim in court. A person has rights: personal rights against mistreatment and rights against violations of one’s dignity and physical integrity. The law matters here. Consider the situation of a slave (historically not so very long ago in the United States) or an illegal immigrant (such as children from other countries crossing the southern border of the United States today). The law does not recognize them fully as “persons” – or at least not to the same level of available rights and obligations as “citizens.” Even children of citizens do not have a complete set of rights: they cannot drive cars or enter contracts legally until reaching an age allowing legal capacity. The law makes other distinctions: “person” is a legally denominated concept. It is extended (or not) for various reasons of philosophy and social policy. Is a fetus a “person”? What rights does a “terrorist” have? Even: is a dog, such as my dog Butterbean, a legal person for certain purposes? I cannot, for example, torture him for fun (assuming that I’m that kind of person, which I’m not). In this sense, then, a dog too is a person: he has some minimal rights recognized under law (though he'll need someone else to speak for him).
An analogous argument applies to firms. They are “persons” because the law recognizes them as such and as having certain rights and obligations: standing in court, holding of property, a party to contracts, an organizational principal, a target for tort liability, and a potential plaintiff to insist on its “rights,” whatever they may be. The exact nature of these various rights of firms remains to be decided: The controversial recent cases of Citizens United and Hobby Lobby extend claims of political and religious freedom to include corporations as persons. Are these cases correctly decided? The answer does not, I believe, turn on whether they are considered “persons” or not. Firms are uncontroversially legal persons for many purposes. The question is whether or not we should extend certain kind of rights to firms as “persons” derivatively – representing the people who act collectively through them. Note that the answer can be qualified. We may say: “Yes, corporations hold property and should have standing to object on constitutional grounds if a government attempts to expropriate the property without compensation.” But we may also say: “No, corporations usually represent diverse groups of people regarding religion, so in these cases it is not correct to say that corporations should have religious rights" (contrary, of course, to the holding of Hobby Lobby). I make this latter argument in a previous blog for The Conglomerate on Hobby Lobby here.
3. Legal personality matters, but it is not dispositive. Firms exist, firms have legal personality, and it matters. The fact that a corporation is a person does not settle the argument for or against an assertion of rights or obligations. This is a mistake in argumentation, in my view, that opinions on both sides of the divided Justices of the Citizens United and Hobby Lobby cases make. In these kinds of cases, the Court should ask – as legislatures and citizens should as well – what is the purpose of a firm and of a corporation given the question that we're asking? Arguably, as Justice Alito argues in Hobby Lobby, business firms are not just profit maximizers (as some students are taught in some business school classes). They are moral creatures because the people who compose them are moral creatures (or, at least they have the potential to be moral -- nobody's perfect!) But we then have to dig deeper and ask “who” is involved in the firm. Why are we asking the question: “persons” for what purposes? Perhaps firms should have political rights, but perhaps also they should be constrained in this respect for good reasons of political theory and modern democracy. Perhaps some kinds of firms should have religious rights, but the scope of these potential rights should be constrained. Rights of employees may be equal to those of owners and managers in this context. There are other limits in principle that need to be drawn here too: but my main point here is that doing so assumes that “legal personality” matters. It is then a question of filling in the institutional portrait: who is this person? What kind of person? And how does the nature of this person relate to the considerations in play on a specific issue?
4. Conclusion. My argument is designed mostly to set up rather than to answer the hard questions, so I hope that my position will not be too controversial. Here again are my main propositions.
a. Firms exist. For our purposes here, corporations are a kind of firm. (The difference between for-profit and profit corporations raises another set of issues.)
b. Firms, including corporations, have legal personality. The question is not whether firms are persons, but what the fact that they are persons means with respect to particular further questions regarding the rights or obligations that we should extend to them as persons.
c. Legal personality matters, but is not dispositive. To argue about whether firms are persons or not persons does not advance the ball very much. The popular debate conflates the meanings of "persons" and "people." Firms are persons; begin there. And then engage the substantive policy issues as hand. Move the discussion forward, while recognizing the truth of the “real fictions” of firms as legal persons.
Some of my non-lawyer friends assume that, as a law professor, I am well versed on the interstices of every law that might apply to their lives, so I had a good chuckle this morning when I read that 352 new laws took effect in Utah today. Wow. The legislature was busy this last term.
The law that is getting the most publicity: the prohibition on dialing or texting while driving.
The law that will have the most immediate effect on my life: increasing the speed limits on rural highways.
The law that most scares me: allowing people to hunt without first completing a hunter-education course.
The law that I assumed was already in place: the "revenge porn" law, which prohibits distribution of "intimate images" without consent and with intent to cause emotional distress or harm.
A new law that is getting a lot less attention (but see here) is the adoption of the Benefit Corporation Act. I am still a skeptic, but over half of states now have or will soon have a statute in place. Do we teach these in Business Organizations? It's probably time to add them ... as if we don't have enough to do in that course.
Many thanks to David for inviting me to visit. As he mentioned, I just completed my first year at Washington and Lee University School of Law, where I taught International Business Transactions and Corporate Social Responsibility. One theme I explored in these courses concerned the challenge of governing the “fragmented firm” that has outsourced and offshored many of its functions to other actors in a global value chain (“GVC”). My students and I were particularly engaged with the question of how to ensure compliance with human rights standards in a GVC that involves a variety of different firms operating in a variety of different countries.
California addressed this problem with the California Transparency in Supply Chains Act of 2010 that requires that covered firms disclose their efforts to ensure that their supply chains are free from slavery and human trafficking. However, the Act’s effects are limited because of the problem of misaligned incentives in the GVC. A GVC involves both buyers and suppliers and the Act's incentives are designed for the buying end. As I explain in my forthcoming article, effective governance of the GVC requires an incentive structure that is appropriate for the diversity of actors who operate in the "fragmented firm."
Under the California Act, a covered firm must disclose to what extent it does the following:
- “Engages in verification of product supply chains to evaluate and address risks of human trafficking and slavery.”
- “Conducts audits of suppliers to evaluate supplier compliance with company standards for trafficking and slavery in supply chains.”
- “Requires direct suppliers to certify that materials incorporated into the product comply with the laws regarding slavery and human trafficking of the country or countries in which they are doing business.”
- “Maintains internal accountability standards and procedures for employees or contractors failing to meet company standards regarding slavery and trafficking.”
- “Provides company employees and management, who have direct responsibility for supply chain management, training on human trafficking and slavery, particularly with respect to mitigating risks within the supply chains of products.”
The problem is that the California Act offers incentives that are more appropriate for the model of a single, integrated firm rather than the present reality of a diversity of actors operating in a global value chain. It risks privileging the interests of the buying end of this value chain (e.g. brand name firm) to the neglect of the other actors in the chain, such as suppliers. This is a problem because suppliers often undermine the objectives of the California Act and similar initiatives when supplier incentives are ignored. For example, one way to improve transparency in the supply chain is to perform audits of the supplier facilities in order to evaluate compliance with human rights standards. However, suppliers counteract the threat of on-site inspections by orchestrating the process to provide a false image of compliance. These are among the reasons that increased monitoring and auditing will not lead to the desired results.
Suppliers engage in such audit evasion because of the subordination of their interests in the incentive structures of international, national, and private initiatives aimed at improving human rights in global business. In these various approaches, there is an underlying assumption of harmony of interests among the variety of actors who operate in the modern global value chain. However, the different firms that operate in the global value chain have varying – even conflicting – interests and vary in location, size, capacity, and functional specialties. It is these interests and differences that determine the receptivity or resistance of suppliers to improving human rights standards. Disproportionate attention to multinational brand name buyers fosters conclusions that media exposure, consumer boycotts and other forms of reputational risks can secure better practices in global value chains. However, suppliers (such as local factory owners and managers in overseas facilities) are motivated by other sets of factors. The incentives that would win their cooperation for improving standards vary from those of their multinational customers. Moreover, they are the parties who are “on the ground” and can determine the degree of implementation of improved practices.
As explained in my forthcoming article, Outsourcing Corporate Accountability, the real challenge is to formulate an incentive structure that speaks to all actors in the value chain. This task requires a “decentralized approach” to governance: (a) a decentralized view of the firm that acknowledges the variety of actors in the global value chain, and (b) decentralized form of multi-stakeholder coordination that is capable of transmitting these incentives in a global value chain.
Of course, the fragmented firm raises a variety of other challenges for transnational governance, and I will discuss some of these other problems in the next couple of weeks.