Professor John C. Coffee, Jr. of Columbia Law School is scheduled to speak on June 22 before the Securities and Exchange Commission’s Investor Advisory Committee, which asked him to address the CHOICE Act’s impact on the SEC’s enforcement powers. These are his remarks:
The Financial CHOICE Act of 2017 has now passed the House of Representatives on a strict party-line vote (winning not a single Democratic vote), but its prospects in the Senate seem dim. Nonetheless, a fair chance exists that individual provisions of this bill will make it through the Senate in one or more watered-down compromises. But which … Read more
Notwithstanding decidedly hostile testimony last month from this humble columnist, the U.S. House of Representatives will soon pass legislation (probably on a strict party-line basis) entitled, “The Financial CHOICE Act of 2017” (H.R. 10) (which acronym stands for “Creating Hope and Optimism for Investors, Corporations, and Entrepreneurs”). Despite this cutesy and innocuous title, the CHOICE Act proposes dangerous and radical surgery that would gut those provisions of the Dodd-Frank Act that seek to prevent the failure of a single major bank from setting off a chain reaction that could bring down all interconnected banks. Indeed, the Act reads as … Read more
The practice of nominal shareholder plaintiffs challenging virtually every sizable corporate merger with a lawsuit alleging a fiduciary breach has been a scandal for some time. At least when brought by the “bottom fishers” of the plaintiff’s bar, these suits result invariably in a nonmonetary, “disclosure only” settlement that benefits no shareholder, but does justify an award of fees to the plaintiff’s attorney (the only party with an economic interest in the suit).
The near inevitability of M&A litigation is a relatively recent phenomenon, as the rate soared after 2000. One study finds that only 12 percent of M&A transactions … Read more
It was predictable. Given a solidly Republican Congress and a Republican president, sooner or later, an effort would be made in the Trump administration to curb class actions. Not surprisingly, it has come sooner, with the “Fairness in Class Action Litigation Act of 2017” (H.R. 985). A motley assortment of procedural “reforms”—some good, many bad, and most overbroad—H.R. 985 has been introduced by Representative Bob Goodlatte (R-Va.), chairman of the House Judiciary Committee. Much of this bill is a reincarnation of a similar class action “reform” bill that passed the House in 2015, but died in the Senate (possibly because … Read more
Buried deep in Article I of the U.S. Constitution is an obscure provision known as the “Emoluments Clause.” In relevant part, it provides that:
“[N]o person holding any Office of Profit or Trust under them, shall, without the consent of the Congress, accept of any present, Emolument, Office or Title, of any kind whatever, from any King, Prince, or foreign State.”
Arguably, it was the first conflicts of interest prohibition in U.S. history, and its origins lie in a gift of a snuff box by the King of France to Benjamin Franklin, then our Ambassador to France, which gift … Read more
In the approaching Era of Trump, we are likely to see much deregulation, reduced public enforcement, and possibly some curbs on private enforcement. Corporate compliance efforts may also be downsized, and compliance officials may learn again to defer to the judgment of the entrepreneurs in the corporation’s profit centers. If a bubble develops in financial stocks (as seems more than possible), some corporate debacles and scandals become predictable. What defenses do shareholders have in this brave new world?
Here, Wells Fargo & Co’s decision to claw back a record $60 million from two senior executives ($41 million from CEO John … Read more
Europe (and much of the rest of the world) have long been skeptical of American-style opt-out class actions in which the plaintiff’s attorney defines the scope of the class. Similarly, they have prohibited the contingent fee, discouraged punitive damages, insisted on “loser pays” fee shifting, and required opt-in classes to be led by a public agency or an approved not-for-profit body. All this should seemingly preclude the spread of “entrepreneurial litigation” to Europe or elsewhere. But it hasn’t!
Major securities class actions for record or near record amounts have recently settled in the Netherlands and Japan, and an even … Read more
Academics who profess expertise in corporate governance sometimes find themselves on very strange turf. That has been my status for the last two years, serving as an adviser to the U.S. Commerce Department in connection with the Obama Administration’s efforts to “privatize” the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (“ICANN”). ICANN is the non-profit entity that essentially manages the Internet’s domain name functions and oversees much of its internal plumbing. This privatization effort has now been challenged in Congress by Senator Ted Cruz and others, and political fireworks are likely. But let’s start at the beginning. In March … Read more
Since the Volkswagen story first broke in September 2015, most observers have just scratched their heads and muttered to themselves in amazement: “What were they thinking? How could you place ‘defeat devices’ in 11 million cars worldwide and expect that you were going to escape detection for long?” There is, however, an answer to this question—one that says much about what is wrong with current priorities and practices for the enforcement of white collar crime. This column begins with an assessment of the Volkswagen case and then turns to an analysis of white collar crime strategies. Finally, it proposes remedies … Read more
Just six months ago, when the Supreme Court’s current term opened in October, things looked bleak for the class action. Three major cases were on the Court’s docket, and each seemed handpicked as a vehicle for the Court’s conservatives to curb the availability of the class action. Nonetheless, it has now become clear that this assault has fallen short. The high water mark in this hostile tide was probably reached in 2011 when the Court decided both Wal-Mart Stores, Inc. v. Dukes and AT&T Mobility LLC v. Concepcion. In these cases, the Court both tightened the standards … Read more
The message of the Dow/DuPont merger and split up is simple: No firm is today “too big to target.” Activists can see the transaction as evidence that, even in the rare case where they lose a proxy fight (as they did at DuPont last year in a squeaker), the handwriting is still on the wall, and their game plan, if appealing, will ultimately prevail. Even though Trian could not win a majority vote to seat its candidates on the DuPont board, it held onto its stake, and the DuPont board quickly ditched their CEO in the wake of that fight … Read more
The New York Attorney General, Eric T. Schneiderman, created a stir this month by opening an investigation of Exxon Mobil Corp. pursuant to the Martin Act (New York’s “Blue Sky” Statute). Various Congressmen, Senators and environmental groups also asked SEC Chairman Mary Jo White and Attorney General Loretta Lynch to start similar investigations, but to this point only the NYAG has responded. The exact scope of this investigation is unclear (which is entirely understandable at this stage), but it appears to relate to charges, widely announced in the press in recent weeks, that Exxon “lied” about climate change, allegedly … Read more
Washington is a strange town! The more you succeed, the more you attract enemies. If you outperform all prior occupants of your office, behave like a model gentleman, and achieve what no one thought possible, that will make you a political target, and, worse yet, attract the neurotic envy of all those you have outshone. If one individual among all U.S. financial regulators has earned world-wide respect in recent years—both for his brains and diplomacy—, it has been James R. Doty, Chair of the Public Company Accounting Oversight Board (“PCAOB”). Guess what that means?
Yes, no good deed goes … Read more
This column will focus on two new and unrelated developments linked only by the fact that they both emanate from California: (1) the Ninth Circuit has handed down a significant decision on insider trading—United States v. Salman—that disagrees (at least marginally) with the Second Circuit’s important (but controversial) decision in United States v. Newman; and (2) the SEC’s Regional Office in California has issued Wells Notices to attorneys, taking the position that an attorney representing clients in immigration matters may be acting as a broker under the federal securities laws. The upshot is to place the … Read more
The AIG decision (actually, Starr International Co. v. The United States) has shocked many but for the wrong reason. Some commentators have focused on the ingratitude of Maurice Greenberg, AIG’s former CEO and the “architect” of its international insurance business. In their view, he should have been thankful for the $85 billion loan extended by the Federal Reserve Board (which still left AIG’s shareholders holding 20% of their stock). Ultimately, AIG’s shareholders did much better than their Lehman counterparts (who received nothing), but these issues of comparative fairness and Greenberg’s alleged chutzpah go mainly to the cosmetics and … Read more
Among practitioners, it is a customary cliché to say that all proxy contests—just like all trials—are unique and idiosyncratic. There is some truth to that easy generalization, but it also misses the forest for the trees. Some obvious truths stand out in the recent battle between Trian Fund Management and DuPont that will apply to future contests:
1. What explains DuPont’s Victory? DuPont won only a narrow victory, despite enormous advantages. Press accounts have reported that DuPont won 52% of the vote. This close margin may seem surprising, given (1) DuPont’s very large market capitalization (over $68 billion), (2) DuPont’s … Read more
The Delaware State Senate passed legislation on May 12th that will preclude “loser pays” fee shifting by bylaw or charter provision—sometimes. The Delaware House is expected to act sometime in June. But the pending legislation only bars such fee-shifting “in connection with an internal corporate claim.” Internal corporate claims are narrowly defined in a new Section 115 of the DGCL to mean claims “(i) that are based upon a violation of a duty by a current or former director or officer or stockholder in such capacity, or (ii), as to which this title confers jurisdiction upon the Court of … Read more
A watershed moment is coming for shareholder activism and corporate governance generally, as the proxy contest brought by Trian Management Fund, seeking effectively to break up DuPont, enters its final stages (with the vote being less than a month away). Technically, the contest is to elect four Trian Fund nominees to the DuPont board, but, as a column in the New York Time’s Dealbook put it more bluntly, the real fight is over whether to break DuPont into three parts and “shut down DuPont’s central research labs.” Much about this contest is unusual: unlike other targets of activism, DuPont … Read more
Since the Corporation Law Council of the Delaware State Bar Association announced earlier this month that it was recommending statutory amendments to prohibit “loser pays” fee shifting bylaws and charter provisions (and thus overrule the Delaware Supreme Court’s 2014 decision in ATP Tour v. Deutscher Tennis Bund), a predictable reaction has followed. Plaintiff’s attorneys and most academics applauded the decision, fearing that the alternative would be the death knell of private enforcement. In contrast, conservatives have attacked the proposed legislation, seeing it as the end of Delaware’s position as the champion of “enabling” corporate legislation and predicting that … Read more
United States. v. Newman represents the most serious defeat for the DOJ and the SEC in their campaign against insider trading since Dirks v. SEC in 1983. In both cases, mistakes were made, and the Government did not at the time appreciate the difficulty of its position. Indeed, in Dirks, the SEC sued the hero of the Equity Funding scandal (Ray Dirks), not the villain. In Newman, the U.S. Attorney was prosecuting far more remote tippees than those in any other Second Circuit case. If the Government were to seek certiorari and take this case to … Read more