Collapsing Corporate Structures: Resolving the Tension Between Form & Substance
Steven L. Schwarcz, 60(1): 109—145 (Nov. 2004)
When is a corporate structure legitimate, and when should it be collapsed? Although most urgent in the context of structured finance transactions, this question also arises in other important corporate contexts, including piercing the corporate veil, substantive consolidation, recharacterizing sales as transfers intended for security, and collapsing LBO transactions. In a larger sense, it is one of the most fundamental questions in corporation law, at the basis of any finding that the private ordering of a firm, or of the relationship between firms, is unenforceable or that the law should disrespect form in favor of substance. In the past, judges and scholars have attempted to formulate rules for determining when to collapse corporate structures only in isolated contexts. This article first examines and synthesizes these isolated sources of law. The synthesis reveals that judges implicitly have been grappling with one of the most difficult conceptual problems of contract law: the circumstances under which externalities should defeat contract enforcement. By addressing that problem directly through contract theory and economics, this article proposes an overall theory for collapsing corporate structures and then uses that theory to derive rules of general application. Finally, the article examines how this theory and its derivative rules might inform, or be informed by, the related debate over whether limited liability should be the default rule in corporation law.
Benefit Corporations: A Challenge in Corporate Governance
Mark J. Loewenstein, 68(4): 1007-1038 (August 2013)
Benefit corporations are a new form of business entity that is rapidly being adopted around the country. Though the legislations varies from jurisdiction to jurisdiction, most statutes are based on a model proposed and promoted by B Lab, itself a nonprofit corporation. The essence of these statutes is that, in making business judgments, the directors of a benefit corporation must take into account the impact of their decisions on the environment and society. The model legislation, though, may create serious governance issuance for the directors of benefit corporations that operate under these laws. This article analyzes the model legislation and identifies its weaknesses, particularly with respect to governance issues.
Benefit Corporation White Paper
Corporate Laws committee, ABA Business Law Section, 68(4): 1083-1110 (August 2013)
Corporate Law After Hobby Lobby
Lyman Johnson and David Millon, 70(1): 1-32 (Winter 2014/2015)
We evaluate the U.S. Supreme Court’s controversial decision in the Hobby Lobby case from the perspective of state corporate law. We argue that the Court is correct in holding that corporate law does not mandate that business corporations limit themselves to pursuit of profit. Rather, state law allows incorporation for any lawful purpose. We elaborate on this important point and also explain what it means for a corporation to “exercise religion.” In addition, we address the larger implications of the Court’s analysis for an accurate understanding both of state law’s essentially agnostic stance on the question of corporate purpose and also of the broad scope of managerial discretion.
Financial Innovation and Governance Mechanisms: The Evolution of Decoupling and Transparency
Henry T. C. Hu; 70(2): 347-406 (Spring 2015)
Financial innovation has fundamental implications for the key substantive and information-based mechanisms of corporate governance. “Decoupling” undermines classic understandings of the allocation of voting rights among shareholders (via, e.g., “empty voting”), the control rights of debtholders (via, e.g., “empty crediting” and “hidden interests”/ “hidden non-interests”), and of takeover practices (via, e.g., “morphable ownership” to avoid section 13(d) disclosure and to avoid triggering certain poison pills). Stock-based compensation, the monitoring of managerial performance, the market for corporate control, and other governance mechanisms dependent on a robust informational predicate and market efficiency are undermined by the transparency challenges posed by financial innovation. The basic approach to information that the SEC has always used—the “descriptive mode,” which relies on “intermediary depictions” of objective reality—is manifestly insufficient to capture highly complex objective realities, such as the realities of major banks heavily involved with derivatives. Ironically, the primary governmental response to such transparency challenges—a new system for public disclosure that became effective in 2013, the first since the establishment of the SEC—also creates difficulties. This new parallel public disclosure system, developed by bank regulators and applicable to major financial institutions, is not directed primarily at the familiar transparency ends of investor protection and market efficiency.
As starting points, this Article offers brief overviews of: (1) the analytical framework developed in 2006−2008 for “decoupling” and its calls for reform; and (2) the analytical framework developed in 2012−2014 reconceptualizing “information” in terms of three “modes” and addressing the two parallel disclosure universes.
As to decoupling, the Article proceeds to analyze some key post- 2008 developments (including the status of efforts at reform) and the road ahead. A detailed analysis is offered as to the landmark December 2012 TELUS opinion in the Supreme Court of British Columbia, involving perhaps the most complicated public example of decoupling to date. The Article discusses recent actions on the part of the Delaware judiciary and legislature, the European Union, and bankruptcy courts—and the pressing need for more action by the SEC. At the time the debt decoupling research was introduced, available evidence as to the phenomenon’s significance was limited. This Article helps address that gap.
As to information, the Article begins by outlining the calls for reform associated with the 2012−2014 analytical framework. With revolutionary advances in computer- and web-related technologies, regulators need no longer rely almost exclusively on the descriptive mode rooted in intermediary depictions. Regulators must also begin to systematically deploy the “transfer mode” rooted in “pure information” and the “hybrid mode” rooted in “moderately pure information.” The Article then shows some of the key ways that the new analytical framework can contribute to the SEC’s comprehensive and long-needed new initiative to address “disclosure effectiveness,” including in “depiction-difficult” contexts completely unrelated to financial innovation (e.g., pension disclosures and high technology companies). The Article concludes with a concise version of the analytical framework’s thesis that the new morphology of public information—consisting of two parallel regulatory universes with divergent ends and means—is unsustainable in the long run and involve certain matters that need statutory resolution. However, certain steps involving coordination among the SEC, the Federal Reserve, and others can be taken in the interim.
Anti-Primacy: Sharing Power in American Corporations
Robert B. Thompson, 71(2): 381-426 (Spring 2016)
Prominent theories of corporate governance frequently adopt primacy as an organizing theme. Shareholder primacy is the oldest and most used of this genre. Director primacy has grown dramatically, presenting in at least two distinct versions. A variety of alternatives have followed—primacy for CEOs, employees, creditors. All of these theories cannot be right. This article asserts that none of them are. The alternative developed here is one of shared power among the three actors named in corporations statutes with judges tasked to keep all players in the game. The debunking part of the article demonstrates how the suggested parties lack legal or economic characteristics necessary for primacy. The prescriptive part of the article suggests that we can better understand the multiple uses of primacy if we recognize that law is not prescribing first principles for governance of firms, but rather providing a structure that works given the economic and business environment in place for modern corporations where separation of function and efficiencies of managers provide the starting point. Thus, the familiar statutory language putting all power in the board must be read against the reality of the discontinuous nature of board (and shareholder) involvement in governance. Corporate governance documents of the largest American corporations, as discussed in the article, are consistent with this reality, assigning management to officers and using verbs like oversee, review, and counsel as the director functions. The last part examines dispute resolution and the role of judges in such a world, with a particular focus on the shareholder/director boundary. At this boundary there are two distinct judicial roles, the traditional role focusing on use of fiduciary duty to check conflict and other director incapacity and the less-recognized role of protecting shareholder self-help. In this more modern context shareholders, because of market and economic developments, are able to effectively participate in governance in a way that was not practical three decades ago, when the key Delaware legal doctrines were taking root. What is particularly interesting here is how courts, commentators, and institutional investors act in a way that is consistent with a shared approach to power, as opposed to the primacy of any of the theories initially suggested.
The Case Against Fiduciary Entity Veil Piercing
Mohsen Manesh; 72(1): 61-100 (Winter 2016/2017)
The doctrine of USACafes holds that whenever a business entity (a “fiduciary entity”) exercises control over and, therefore, stands in a fiduciary position to another business entity (the “beneficiary entity”), those persons exercising control, whether directly or indirectly, over the fiduciary entity (the “controller(s)”) owe a fiduciary duty to the beneficiary entity and its owners. Focusing on control as the defining element, courts have applied this far-reaching doctrine across all statutory business forms—including corporations, limited partnerships, and limited liability companies—and through successive tiers of parent-subsidiary entity structure to assign liability to the individuals who ultimately exercise control over an entity. In this respect, USACafes enables what two prominent business law jurists have aptly described as “a particularly odd pattern of routine veil piercing.”
This article argues that USACafes is a needless doctrine that stands in conflict with other, more fundamental precepts of law and equity. Accordingly, when presented with the opportunity, the courts of Delaware and other jurisdictions should reject its holding. Instead, the law ought to respect the fiduciary entity for what it is: a legal person separate and apart from its owners and controllers. If the limited liability veil of a fiduciary entity is to be pierced, then it should be under the more rigorous legal standard that courts have traditionally applied in veil-piercing cases.
Securities on Blockchain and the Uniform Commercial Code
Reade Ryan and Mayme Donohue; 73(1): 85-108 (Winter 2017/2018)
This article initially provides a high-level description of blockchain technology intended to be accessible to those without a technical background, and illustratively describes an existing blockchain system that already evidences securities issued and being traded. The article then sets forth and analyzes how Article 8 of the Uniform Commercial Code covers blockchain securities as “uncertificated securities.” Finally, the article provides guidance to corporate lawyers faced with giving a legal opinion relating to the issuance and sale of securities on a blockchain.
The Past and Future of Debt Recharacterization
James M. Wilton and William A. McGee, 74(1) 91-126 (Winter 2018/2019)
The bankruptcy doctrine of debt recharacterization, as developed in four federal circuits, uses multi-factor tests derived from tax cases involving solvent companies. Aspects of these tests make no sense when applied to debt of insolvent companies and the U.S. Treasury has determined that, even for the purpose originally intended, the tests produce “inconsistent and unpredictable results.” The Ninth Circuit has now joined the Fifth Circuit in looking to state law as the basis for determining whether debt claims should be recharacterized as equity and disallowed in bankruptcy cases. This Article examines these two approaches, analyzing arguments for and against application of a federal or a state law rule of decision for debt recharacterization. Drawing on U.S. Supreme Court precedent, statutory analysis, and policy, the Article shows that, under long-standing legal principles, state law provides the proper framework for determining whether debt should be recharacterized as equity in bankruptcy and offers both consistency between state and federal courts and a higher degree of predictability concerning the enforcement of insider debt. The article predicts that the U.S. Supreme Court will ultimately resolve the circuit split in favor of a state law rule of decision. In anticipation of such a ruling, the article concludes by providing an overview of choice of law issues and state law approaches to debt recharacterization.
Why Law Firms Collapse
John Morley; 75(1): 1399-1440 (Winter 2019-2020)
Law firms don’t just go bankrupt—they collapse. Like Dewey & LeBoeuf, Heller Ehrman, and Bingham McCutchen, law firms often go from apparent health to liquidation in a matter of months or even days. Almost no large law firm has ever managed to reorganize its debts in bankruptcy and survive. This pattern is puzzling, because it has no parallel among ordinary businesses. Many businesses go through long periods of financial distress and many even file for bankruptcy. But almost none collapse with the extraordinary force and finality of law firms. Why?