A recent blog from Alison Frankel poses an interesting question: if corporations undertake obligations to “stakeholders” & not merely shareholders, what does that mean for the business judgment rule? Here’s an excerpt:
Law firms are beginning to contemplate whether corporate boards will continue to be entitled to the deference afforded by the business judgment rule – which broadly shields directors from liability as long as they’re deemed to have acted in the corporation’s interest – if their decisions are prompted by rationales other than maximizing profits.
That’s particularly relevant in Delaware, where, as Chief Justice Leo Strine explained in a 2015 paper, The Dangers of Denial, corporate law is resolutely focused on stockholder welfare. Strine (who is due to retire from the Delaware Supreme Court by the end of October), is of the view that Delaware precedent does not provide leeway for judges to sanction board decisions that subordinate shareholder interests.
In other words, if directors put the interests of other stakeholders first, they risk losing the protection of the business judgment rule – at least in Delaware. If that’s so, then isn’t Gamble right about the law obligating boards to act like sociopaths in the pursuit of value maximization?
Nope. Except in very limited situations, the authority provided to Delaware directors under Section 141(a) of the DGCL includes the authority to set the time frame for achieving corporate goals without – as the Delaware Supreme Court put it in Paramount Communications v. Time – a “fixed investment horizon.” Determining that time frame is a matter of business judgment.
So, if you’re a director who is thinking about the long-term, you’ve got plenty of discretion to conclude in good faith that considering the interests of other stakeholders may be helpful in maximizing long-term shareholder value. But that doesn’t mean that members of the only stakeholder constituency that can vote won’t still lean on you mighty hard to do otherwise.
The sound & fury surrounding the BRT’s pronouncement prompted it to issue a lengthy “clarification” of its position – and it draws heavily on the idea of promoting the interests of other constituencies as being essential in order to create long-term shareholder value.
-John Jenkins, TheCorporateCounsel.net September 4, 2019