Should Directors Be Held Liable More Often?

In an interesting and provocative June 7, 2011 post on the DealBook blog (here), University of Connecticut Law Professor Steven Davidoff voiced his frustration that public company directors are not held liable more often for problems at their companies. Directors, he says, "have about the same chance of being held liable for the poor management of a public firm as they have of being struck by lightning."

Davidoff goes on to note that the Delaware courts set "an extraordinarily high standard for finding directors liable for a company's mismanagement" adding that "a Delaware court is not going to find them liable no matter how stupid their decisions are," but will only find them liable "if they intentionally acted wrongfully or were so oblivious that it was essentially the same thing." The bottom line for Davidoff is that while the "upside" for board member is "huge," their downside is "very limited." 

I have some thoughts and comments about Davidoff's column. My purpose is not to dispute his thesis or even necessarily to disagree with him, but rather to try to sharpen the focus of the discussion. My fundamental concern is that I think that there are already many more lawsuits against boards than there are companies engaged in corporate misconduct.

My fear, given the civil litigation resources our society already has deployed, is that more dramatic sanctions against corporate board members could result only in unintended collateral damage rather than greater traction in the fight against corporate misconduct. To me, a demand that all directors must face greater financial consequences in civil litigation is akin to a proposal that we must use more powerful rat poison in the kitchen - it is just as likely that we will wind up killing off the family pets and Grandma as it is that we will eliminate any greater number of rats. To be specific, if we are going to employ more potent means of controlling corporate misconduct, let us take great care to understand what our goals are and make certain the means are well calculated to achieve the intended goal.

Let me just say at the outset that I have nothing but respect for Professor Davidoff. His posts on the Dealbook blog are among the best out there. By raising the questions as I do below, I am merely hoping to consider his assumptions, not to disrespect his work in any way. I also should probably declare my biases at the outset, as well. I have spent most of my career worrying about the interests of corporate directors and officers. There is no doubt that I come at these issues from the perspective of the corporate officials, and with their interests in mind. However, I believe that even if it may the product of a bias, this perspective still affords an important take on these issues.

Davidoff seems very sure that directors are not being held liable often enough. However, it is not clear why he thinks directors should be held liable more often. Upon reflection, I can think of three possible reasons why it might be argued that directors ought to face civil liability more frequently: recompense; retribution; and deterrence. I examine each of these three reasons below and consider whether or not they substantiate the need for directors to face civil liability more frequently.

Recompense: Davidoff addresses the issue of recompense, at least inferentially. After identifying the two Delaware court cases in which directors have been held liable, and reviewing the amounts paid in those two cases, he aggregates the amounts paid and comments, with obvious derision, these payments amount to "no more than $8.35 million in personal payments by directors over the 26 years."

While the cited figure may indeed represent the total amount that directors have themselves paid during that period in Delaware cases, it is hardly an accurate picture of the total amount of recompense paid to investors or to companies during that period. There have of course been many other cases settled during that period in which the settlement amounts were funded by D&O insurance or other sources.

Davidoff briefly acknowledges the role that D&O insurance plays, by stating that "even if there is a liability or a settlement, it is almost always covered by insurance of directors and officers." But if the goal is recompense, what difference should it make whether that the funds were provided by insurance? The directors may not have paid these other settlements out of their own assets, but the settlements have provided extensive additional recompense to companies or to investors. Moreover, as I have noted on this blog (most recently here), the frequency of very large cash payments in Delaware cases and other derivative suits has become increasingly common in recent years.

In addition, though Davidoff briefly refers in his column to cases involving potential liability under the federal securities laws, he omits to mention that there have been billions of dollars of recoveries in these cases in recent years. Yes, as Davidoff notes, settlements in those cases rarely include amounts paid personally by directors, but if the goal is recompense (rather than retribution), the source of funds should be irrelevant.  

The omission of any reference to these many other settlements suggests that the real objection may not be that the cases do not produce enough recompense, but that these case resolutions do not produce enough pain for directors, because the funds did not come out of the directors' pockets. But if the absence of pain is the problem, then the issue seems to be retribution, not recompense.

Retribution: Perhaps I am reading too much into Davidoff's words, but I do not think I am being unfair in suggesting that behind Davidoff's words is a belief that directors should face a greater threat of punishment, and specifically that their personal assets ought to be on the line.

In considering whether or not directors should face a greater threat of punishment, I think it is critical to note that in his column Davidoff only refers to civil litigation (specifically, Delaware state court litigation and federal securities litigation). His column does not address, discuss or mention criminal or enforcement actions.

There unquestionably are occasions when retribution against corporate officials may be appropriate. But the proper vehicles for retributive justice are criminal actions and enforcement proceedings, which are the appropriate means for enforcing societal values and imposing punishments.

There is and should be an entirely different discussion whether or not the criminal and enforcement authorities have sufficiently exercised their prosecutorial responsibilities in connection with corporate misconduct. But Davidoff's column was restricted just to civil litigation. Civil litigation may well serve the goals of recompense (as discussed above) and deterrence (as discussed below), but I would contend that it is not the purpose of civil litigation to serve the goal of retribution, which is the goal of criminal and enforcement procedures.

Deterrence: Which brings us to the question of deterrence. I understand the argument that if directors faced a greater likelihood of being personally liable financially, there would be greater deterrence of corporate misconduct. But before examining this question, I want to make a few points about deterrence as it currently operates.

The problem with most analyses of the deterrent effect of corporate and securities litigation is that it usually assumes that the only effective deterrence is through financial consequences, and it overlooks other possibilities. My own experience is that the threat of civil litigation (as well as the possibility of criminal and enforcement proceedings) provides a powerful deterrent effect, separate and apart from the threat of financial liability.

My experience is that most corporate directors have a deep and abiding aversion to becoming associated with any type of corporate scandal. The prospect of seeing their name in the media paired with the word "fraud" or even "mismanagement" is a truly detestable possibility and one they are deeply committed to trying to avoid. These individuals value their reputations. They are keenly interested in avoiding the types of situations that would draw them into scandal and tarnish their personal or professional standing.

The individual directors are also highly motivated to avoid the burden, disruption and expense of civil litigation. And with regard to expense, I think it is critically important to note that Davidoff's analysis of how often directors have been required to pay settlements or judgments themselves omits to consider how often directors are compelled to fund their defenses out of their own pockets.

Defending these kinds of suits can be hideously expensive, and if indemnification is unavailable and insurance is inadequate, directors can (and sometimes do) find themselves forced to draw on their own assets to mount their defense. Directors are well aware of these possibilities and they are highly motivated to avoid them.

In short, I believe that even conceding all of the points in Davidoff's column about the infrequency of personal civil liability for directors, the threat of civil litigation still provides a powerful deterrent to corporate boards.

There are of course boards or individual directors to whom these deterrents are not sufficient. However, there is nothing that says that imposing greater financial liability in civil litigation would deter these undeterrable boards and individuals. Very significant personal liability was imposed on the boards of Enron, WorldCom and Tyco, but I would argue that perhaps other than with respect to the specific individuals involved these individuals' settlement contributions otherwise had absolutely no measurable deterrent effect.

I can anticipate the argument that three cases alone is not enough, that personal liability must be imposed more generally in more civil cases in order to generate enough deterrent effect. But if personal liability in three cases was not enough, how many will be enough? How do we know? Doesn't this all seem rather speculative?

My fear is that in the highly charged current environment, the generalized notion that individuals ought to be compelled to pay more out of their personal assets could wind up imposing costs and burdens in ways that far exceed the intended purposes - indeed, without any substantiation that it would even potentially produce the intended benefit. And likely imposing enormous costs on many of the wrong people.

Let me put it another way. The suggestion that individuals ought to be held personally liable is a far more comfortable notion if you are sure that the liability will never be imposed on you personally. It is an easy assertion to make against a group from which you have not only dissociated yourself, but that you have comprehensively demonized. However, you would take a far different perspective if the question involved your own personal assets. Particularly in our litigious society where sensational and even outrageous allegations can be made with impunity and where the high costs of litigation often can compel settlements simply as a way to avoid financial ruin. In these circumstances, the insistence on personal director liability looks to many directors like nothing more than a legally sanctioned predicate for future hostage crises.

I know that in taking this position, I may well be flying in the face of conventional wisdom. My purpose here is to provoke discussion and to make sure that before we move on to what actions we should take, we make sure that we identify our goals and ensure that the actions are well matched to the intended goals. Stronger rat poison undoubtedly will produce many effects, but there is nothing that ensures that it will result in fewer rats.

My own view is that there are already far too many civil lawsuits against corporate boards, most of them involving circumstances where nothing improper has occurred. The law has evolved in response to the excess of litigation, and that is the reason for the barriers to liability that Davidoff bemoans. A welcome and interesting discussion would be one that addresses the question of how we can develop a more concentrated system of civil litigation, in which meritorious cases are resolved and fewer of the other kind are filed.

More About Delaware: This must have been the week to raise doubts about Delaware's courts. In her June 9, 2011 "Summary Judgment" column on the Am Law Litigation Daily (here), which included her remarks on the nomination of Delaware Vice Chancellor Leo Strine to take the position of Chancellor of the Court, she commented, among other things, that Delaware is "soft on Corporate America" adding that corporate directors "have little to fear in terms of being held accountable when they do a lousy job and harm a lot of people in the process." She concluded by calling on Strine to reconsider the words of the courts critics, adding that the Court "can and should send a much stronger message."

In Case You Missed It: I hope readers had a chance to read the interesting guest post I published late last Friday afternoon (here), in which Bernstein Liebhardt attorney Brian Lehman presents his prediction of the outcome the Janus Capital case now pending before the U.S. Supreme Court. Lehman's interesting prognosis is worth a look, particularly given that the Court is likely to release its decision in the Janus Capital case any day now.

Read other items of interest from the world of directors & officers liability, with occasional commentary, at the D&O Diary, a blog by Kevin LaCroix.

For more information about LexisNexis products and solutions connect with us through our corporate site.