Sue concentrates her practice primarily in general corporate transactional work and finance documentation in the areas of Business Transactions, Business Law, Private Finance, Real Estate, Contracts, and Non-Profit Law. She represents entrepreneurial individuals and privately-held companies in a great variety of business transactions, including stock and asset acquisitions, banking negotiations, mergers, secured and unsecured financing, real estate and business acquisitions and leases, capital arrangements for hospitals and other health care providers, distributorships, license arrangements and business separations and dissolutions.
Retailers, Importers, and brands need to immediately be sure there is no cotton from Turkmenistan in their supply chains. The U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) has finally announced it will turn away or seize and withhold any shipments of cotton originating in the Central Asian nation of Turkmenistan. Affected importers will clearly experience a significant, and probably costly, disruption of production- related procurement. The International Labor Rights Forum (ILRF) urged the U.S. to ban Turkmen cotton two years ago but was rejected until findings of state-enforced slave labor was documented after extensive investigation.
CBP was given the authority to ban tainted products like cotton from Turkmenistan when The Trade Facilitation and Trade Enforcement Act of 2015 (TFTEA) removed the “consumptive demand” exception to the United States Tariff Act of 1930, a commonly exploited loophole to the prohibition against importing products of forced labor. Prior to the new provision, CBP used the law only 39 times since 1930 to apprehend goods tainted at some point from creation to delivery by forced labor. Since the passage of TFTEA, CBP has issued four new Withhold Release Orders (each a WRO) on specific goods from China (soda ash, calcium chloride, and caustic soda from Tangshan Sanyou Group and its subsidiaries on March 29, 2016; potassium, potassium hydroxide, and potassium nitrate from Tangshan Sunfar Silicon Industries also on March 29, 2016; Stevia and its derivatives from Inner Mongolia Hengzheng Group Baoanzhao Agricultural and Trade LLC on May 20, 2016; and peeled garlic from Hangchange Fruits & Vegetable Products Co., Ltd. on September 16, 2016).
A March 31, 2017 Executive Order establishing enhanced collection and enforcement of antidumping and countervailing duties and violations of trade and customs laws authorized the Secretary of Homeland Security, through the commissioner of CBP, to develop implementation plans and a strategy for interdiction and disposal of inadmissible goods and to develop prosecution practices to treat significant trade law violations as a high priority.
Although 2017 saw more antidumping and countervailing duty orders and intellectual property rights protection activity under TFTEA, there have been no published detentions prior to the ban of any shipments of Turkmen cotton, although CBP pledged to the U.S. Congress that more import bans under section 307 would be forthcoming. Perhaps this is just the beginning of a long awaited CBP crack-down on forced labor imports to combat human rights abuses in global supply chains.
Goods Tainted by Forced Labor
Reprinted with permission from Business Law Today April 2018.
The global fight against child labor and forced labor has been led for decades by the International Labor Organization (ILO). The ILO’s most recent estimate is that 25 million people around the world, including millions of children, are currently subjected to forced labor. Under U.S. law, section 307 of the Tariff Act of 1930 prohibits the importation of merchandise mined, produced, or manufactured, wholly or in part, in any foreign country by convict, forced, or indentured labor. This law gave the U.S. Customs Service (now the U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP)) authority to seize commodities imported into the United States where forced labor was suspected to have been used anywhere in the supply chain.
The Tariff Act defines “forced labor” as “all work or service which is exacted from any person under the menace of any penalty for its nonperformance and for which the worker does not offer himself voluntarily.” Products of forced labor include goods that were produced by convicts and indentured laborers. The ILO defines forced or compulsory labor as service that involves coercion—either direct threats of violence or more subtle forms of compulsion under the menace of any penalty. Goods made by child labor, defined as work that deprives children of their childhood, their potential, and their dignity and that is harmful to their physical and mental development, are included in the forced-labor prohibition especially when combined with any form of indenture. Such tainted merchandise is subject to exclusion and/or seizure by the CBP, may lead to corporate criminal liability, and could even support prosecution of culpable employees individually.
The Trade Facilitation and Trade Enforcement Act of 2015 (TFTEA) removed the “consumptive demand” exception to the United States Tariff Act of 1930, which was a commonly exploited loophole to the prohibition against importing products of forced labor. Prior to the new provision, CBP used the law only 39 times since 1930 to apprehend goods tainted at some point from creation to delivery by forced labor. Since the passage of TFTEA, CBP has issued four new Withhold Release Orders (each a WRO) on specific goods from China. Although 2017 saw more antidumping and countervailing duty orders and intellectual property rights protection activity under TFTEA, there have been no published detentions to date, although CBP has pledged to the U.S. Congress that more import bans under section 307 are forthcoming.
Avoiding Bad Press, Brand Impairment and Costly Litigation
Reprinted with permission from the February 28th edition of the The Legal Intelligencer © 2017 ALM Media Properties, LLC. All rights reserved.Further duplication without permission is prohibited
A significant amount of press surrounded the US Department of Justice (DOJ) one year trial pilot program on April 5, 2016 and the earlier September 29, 2015 “Yates Memo”, instructing companies to self-disclose possible violations of the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act (FCPA) and fully cooperate with the DOJ. What has not been as broadly made known is that, a few days later, the U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) establish a Trade Enforcement Task Force within its Office of Trade to focus on issues related to enforcement of antidumping and countervailing duty laws and interdiction of imported products using forced labor.
Antidumping and countervailing duties are historic tariffs imposed on foreign imports priced below fair market value to ensure a level playing field for domestic producers. The interdiction of products using forced labor stems from The Trade Facilitation and Trade Enforcement Act of 2015(TFTEA), enacted in February 2016. TFTEA eliminates an earlier “consumptive demand” exemption, meaning that goods made with indentured, child, or other forced labor are no longer allowed in the US just to meet US demand. With this change, CBP will no longer be legally required to weigh demand considerations when processing information concerning forced labor. CBP will be updating its regulations to clarify the TFTEA amendment but, since March 10, 2016, CBP started training personnel and has executed several withhold/release orders related to goods made by convict or forced labor using a Department of Labor (DOL) list of foreign-made products for which the DOL “has a reasonable basis to believe might have been mined, produced or manufactured” by forced or indentured labor. The CBP has also established within its Office of Trade a Trade Remedy Law Enforcement Division and seems intent on taking action.
To limit warranties or disclaim liability for products sold in online commerce or advertised online, most businesses create a Terms and Conditions or a Rules of Use page on their business website. A significant uptick in cases filed in New Jersey, however, cite these common broad warranty limitations and disclaimers posted on a business’ website as violations of the New Jersey Truth-in-Consumer Contract, Warranty and Notice Act (TCCWNA).
The TCCWNA gives standing to consumers who have suffered no financial loss or injury against sellers who, with no intent to mislead, have provided a consumer with, or even shown, a warranty, contract, sign or notice of any sort relating to personal, family or household merchandise that includes text that violates New Jersey (or federal) law. Using software to find Terms and Conditions or Rules of Use and other web-based advertising and social media campaigns that include the offensive text, the organized plaintiffs’ bar has increasingly relied on TCCWNA to bring class actions to generate huge fees for the attorneys and $100 to each consumer in the class under the statute’s automatic damages provision.
What is the TCCWNA ?
The TCCWNA can be found in N.J.S.A. 56:12-14, et seq. The law, which became effective over 30 years ago, is a broad consumer protection law that requires that a plaintiff/consumer only show:
1. the consumer or potential consumer was given or shown a warranty, notice, contract, or sign by the seller;
2. the product offered was consumer related – used primarily for personal, family, or households purposes; and
3. the document or notice included some language that breaches New Jersey or Federal law in some manner.
According to the TCCWNA, N.J.S.A. 56:12-15:
No seller, lessor, creditor, lender or bailee shall in the course of his business offer to any consumer or prospective consumer….or give or display any written consumer warranty, notice or sign…which includes any provision that violates any clearly established legal right of a consumer or responsibility of a seller, lessor ,creditor, lender or bailee as established by State or Federal law at the time the offer is made or the consumer contract is signed or the warranty, notice or sign is given or displayed.
Why are the TCCWNA lawsuits being brought?
TCCWNA lawsuits are being brought for a variety of reasons. The core reasons are:
• Most business websites include warranty waivers or indemnity provisions that try to limit a consumer’s legal right.
• The consumer does not have to show any specific injury or any loss.
• Good faith of the business is not a defense. The plaintiff does not need to prove an unconscionable act.
• There is no privity requirement; i.e., the plaintiff does not have to prove that he/she actually bought our used the product.
• Damages include attorney’s fees and court costs.
• There is an automatic $100 damages per plaintiff provision within TCCWNA so actual damages need not be proven. Just a thousand member class means $100,000 in damages.
How does TCCWNA affect a business website?
Business webpages are “notices” under the TCCWNA even if they are not intended by the business to mislead a consumer about the applicable law or to form a contract. This includes the Terms and Conditions, Menus, Disclaimers, and almost any page of the website. Any type of advertisement or print material may be considered a “notice” to consumers and the great variety of state laws and complexity of the Federal Magnuson-Moss Warranty Act make it easy to inadvertently include an impermissible warranty or disclaimer provision. Examples of text that can trigger problems include:
• disclaiming implied warranties (of merchantability or fitness for a particular purpose) on any consumer product if you offer a written warranty for that product or sell a service contract on it.
• requiring a purchaser of a warranted product to buy an item or service from a particular company to use with the warranted product in order to be eligible to receive a remedy under the warranty.
• requiring customers to return a registration card when stating that the business is providing a “full” warranty.
• offering a warranty that appears to provide coverage but in fact provides none (like a warranty covering only moving parts on an electronic product that has no moving parts).
• excluding or imposing limitations on incidental or consequential damages or on how long an implied warranty last in some states.
• including a provision that requires customers to try to resolve warranty disputes by means of an informal dispute resolution mechanism before going to court that does not meet the requirements stated in the FTC’s Rule on Informal Dispute Settlement Procedures.
You should always have a lawyer review the Terms and Conditions and Rules of Use pages (and perhaps all the pages) of your website before you publish to see what clauses or statements may be in violation of New Jersey or Federal law. Prohibited limitations on the legal rights of a consumer under implied or express warranties should be edited or deleted. No business that is acting in good faith should face huge litigation costs and a stiff statutory penalty in a class action lawsuit brought by plaintiffs who suffer no actual harm.
The issuer is permitted to communicate with potential crowdfunding investors if the communications occur through the platform but, in spite of the use of the platform or a website link, the final rules limit the ability of the issuer, as well as the ability of others acting on the issuer’s behalf, to advertise. Pursuant to Rule 204, the issuer-company is permitted to advertise the Section 4(a)(6) exempt offering by releasing an offering notice (similar to tombstone ads permitted under Securities Act Rule 134) that contains only the following information:
• a statement that the issuer is conducting an offering;
• the name of the intermediary and a link to the intermediary’s offering page;
• the amount of securities offered (target and maximum);
• the nature of the securities;
• the price of the securities;
• the closing date for the offering;
• the name, address, phone number and website of the issuer;
• the email address of a representative of the issuer; and
• a brief factual description of the issuer’s business.
Will compliance with all of these crowdfunding rules be easier than the traditional Regulation D private placement (without general solicitation)? Certainly the hope was that the crowdfunding rules would allow smaller issuers (and smaller investors) greater opportunities to access capital markets. But the procedural and informational requirements justifiably deemed necessary to protect investors and reduce the risk of fraud make crowdfunding far less accessible than hoped. Only the passage of time will determine which of the recent SEC initiatives prove most popular and affordable to small issuers with limited budgets.
The crowdfunding offering must be conducted through a registered broker-dealer or a funding portal with a “platform”. A “platform” is defined as “a program or application accessible via the Internet or other similar electronic communication medium through which a registered broker or a registered funding portal acts as an intermediary.…” No more than one intermediary can be used for an offering, and the issuer-company is required to make certain disclosures to the SEC, investors and the intermediary facilitating the offering, including:
• A discussion about the size and scope of the offering.
• The specific use or range of possible uses for the offering proceeds, as well as the factors impacting the selection by the issuer of each such use.
• Information about the securities being sold to the public.
• A description of the company’s business operations.
• Information about the company’s officers and directors during the prior three years, including how long they have held those positions and their respective business experience.
• Information about the holders of 20% or more of the company’s outstanding voting securities, as well as a description of the capital structure and any special voting rights or investor rights.
• Identification of Rule 501 and any issuer-company imposed transfer restrictions on the securities offered.
• A discussion of risks associated with an investment in the securities and with participation in a crowdfunded offering.
• A discussion of the financial condition and financial statements of the company, tiered in accordance with the size of the offering such that:
1. Offerings of $100,000 or less require financial statements certified by the company’s principal financial officer.
2. Offerings of more than $100,000 but less than $500,001 require audited financial statements if available or, if a first time crowdfunding exemption user, financial statements reviewed by an outside auditor.
3. Offerings of more than $500,000 up to the $1,000,000 limit require audited financial statements
The offering materials must also include a description of the offering or subscription process and a disclosure of the investor’s right to cancel his/her investment up to 48 hours prior to the deadline identified in the offering materials.
The issuer must complete Form C, which includes details of the initial disclosure about the offering. The completed Form C must be filed with the SEC and either posted by the intermediary on its platform or viewable by investors through a link. The issuer-company must report material changes on Form C-A, periodic updates on Form C-U and ongoing annual filings on From C-AR until the filing obligation is terminated on Form C-TR.
The new rules allow the issuer to engage in limited advertisement of the offering, but there are traps for the unwary. These rules are discussed in the next installment of this blog.
Part 1 of 3 Part Series:
After years of hand-wringing and speculation by entrepreneurs, re-occurring angels, venture capital firms, registered brokers and lawyer types involved with private placements, on October 30, 2015, the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) finally adopted equity crowdfunding rules pursuant to Title III of the Jumpstart Our Business Startup Act of 2012 (JOBS Act). These rules, which rely on Section 4(a)(6) of the Securities Act, are scheduled to be issued in the Federal Register early in 2016 and will become effective 180 days after publication.
Assuming the issuer is not otherwise ineligible, the crowdfunding rules will permit the following:
• A company can raise a maximum aggregate of $1 million through crowdfunding offerings in a 12 month period.
• Individual investors can invest an aggregate sum, over a 12-month period, in any number of crowdfunded offerings, based on the following formulas:
1. If either the individual’s annual income or net worth is less than $100,000, s/he can invest the greater of $2,000 or 5% of the lesser of his/her annual income or net worth.
2. If both his/her annual income and net worth are equal to or more than $100,000, s/he can invest 10% of his/her annual income or net worth, provided that the total investment does not to exceed $100,000.
Not all companies can rely on crowdfunding under the final rules. If the issuer is (i) not organized under the laws of a state or territory of the United States or the District of Columbia; (ii) subject to the Securities Exchange Act of 1934 reporting requirements; (iii) an investment company as defined in the Investment Company Act of 1940, or a company that is excluded from the definition of “investment company” under Section 3(b) or 3(c) of that act; (iv) has a “bad actor” in management or as a major equity holder; (v) has sold securities in reliance on Section 4(a)(6) and failed to make the required ongoing reports within the two-year period before the proposed new offering; or (vi) is a development stage company that has no specific business plan or purpose or does not identify a proposed merger or acquisition target.
The new rules include detailed provisions relating to mandatory disclosures and other requirements, which will be discussed in subsequent posts on this blog.
No one (not even us legal corporate types) would ever suggest that bylaws are interesting. But recent Third Circuit and Delaware Court of Chancery decisions have highlighted the complexity of issues regarding a company’s fee advancement bylaws and policies. Some corporate indemnification provisions are mandated and other provisions are simply permitted under Delaware state law. In practice, adopted corporate bylaws refer to the right (or absence of a right) of officers and directors of a company to be reimbursed by the company for losses, including legal fees, incurred in legal proceedings that name individual officers or directors if those proceedings relate to their employment or activities on behalf of that company. Mandated indemnification obligations under Delaware statutory requirements attach only to an “officer or director” but many companies nevertheless have bylaws and policies that permit indemnification to “any person” (including officers, directors, employees and agents) who act in good faith and in a manner they reasonably believed to not be opposed to the best interests of the entity. The Third Circuit, however, recently held that the definition of “officer” was ambiguous; an executive title like “Vice President” alone does not automatically prove eligibility for indemnification. And the Court of Chancery held that officers and directors need not prove that they will be indemnified to obtain fee advancement where bylaws tie fee advancement to indemnification. In other words, entitlement to advancement of fees under corporate bylaws is to be considered independently of indemnification entitlement. Examining the requirement that the conduct in question of any person seeking indemnification must be “by reason of the fact” of his or her officer/employment status, the same court determined that bylaws may not exclude entire categories of alleged wrongdoing for the purpose of fee advancement denial. If the alleged wrongdoing relates to an officer’s duties owed to the company (such as breaches of fiduciary duty), fee advancement may be required (even where the same bylaws require a clawback if the officer is ultimately found to have engaged in such wrongdoing).
Reprinted by permission of Catalyst Center for Nonprofit Management. Further duplication without permission is prohibited.
Childhood victimization and other abuses of our most vulnerable citizens unfortunately remain a much too prevalent and tragic issue of our times. Particularly offensive is the possibility of physical or emotional abuse of those susceptible because of age, disability or circumstance while receiving services of a nonprofit. Safety efforts to protect the very people being served by a nonprofit, regardless of size, must be constantly monitored.
Even the smallest nonprofit should adopt safety-related policies based on nationally recommended guidelines developed by experts. Such policies and guidelines help protect both the recipients of the nonprofit’s services and the integrity of the nonprofit’s programs. Every nonprofit that serves children and youth has the obligation to exercise “reasonable due diligence” with regards to screening as part of its hiring and vetting programs for members of the nonprofit’s Board, staff and volunteers. Without such screening or gate-keeping vigilance, the very people the nonprofit is trying to serve are more likely to be unprotected and the reputation of the nonprofit (not to mention its fiscal health) are at unnecessary risk.
Those of us routinely asked to draft or review letters of intent (LOI), memorandum of understanding (MOU) and initial term sheets have a new challenge. The use of conventional text clearly stating “this is non-binding” to be sure a preliminary document memorializing negotiations does not give rise to the risk of unintended enforcement apparently is no longer sufficient. As a result of the Delaware Supreme Court’s decision in SIGA Technologies v. PharmAthene, Inc., No 314, 2012 2013 Del. LEXIS 265, 1-2 (Del. May 24, 2013), it is now suggested that counsel negotiating LOIs, MOUs and even term sheets designated as final include a specific negation of good faith. Text specifically stating the parties agree that neither party shall have a duty to negotiate in good faith is now considered appropriate. Getting both sides to agree to include such a forbidding sentence, however, is a significant challenge.
In SIGA Technologies, the court held that expectation or “benefit of the bargain” damages (and not just out of pocket, reliance damages) were appropriate where (1) the parties had a term sheet; (2) the parties expressly agreed to negotiate in good faith in a final transaction in accordance with those terms; and (3) but for the breaching party’s bad faith in trying to improve the terms, the parties would have consummated a definitive agreement with the terms set forth in the term sheet.
The SIGA Technologies decision might have been appropriate in light of the specific facts before the court but it leaves transactional lawyers at a loss. Business lawyers have been advising clients since the beginning of time that there is, and should be, a great difference between incomplete and preliminary letters, drafts and other communications clearly understood as non-binding (with the exception of specifically identified provisions, such as those relating to confidentiality and exclusivity) and final, mutually executed contracts with an integration clause. The former should have no legal effect other than as a basis to start the hard drafting process for definitive agreements. LOIs, MOUs and term sheets referring to the parties’ intent to finalize binding documents later are to be used as support for financing efforts and strategic planning and not evidence of a final oral or implied agreement between the parties. Exceptions to this rule were, until recently, very narrowly applied and usually only if the parties made an effort to carve out the intended exceptions with clear language (non-disclosure, exclusivity or no-shop provisions). Efforts by counsel for either party to impose a written duty of good faith and fair dealing on the other party are normally met with resistance with the better practice perceived to be silence on this point and text that allows either party to halt negotiations at any time for any reason as long as there is no breach of the binding confidentiality and/or exclusivity provisions. Termination fees are sometimes added to encourage good faith negotiations and cover out of pocket costs incurred as a cost of freedom to abandon those negotiations.
To avoid imposition of a SIGA Technologies penalty, many corporate advisors are now insisting the only safe course is to explicitly refute the presence of good faith. And yet, most clients do not want to suggest that they would ever negotiate in bad faith. Worse, most clients do not want to agree to allow the other party to the proposed transaction to abandon all pretenses of good faith and fair dealing. Who wants to go to the dance with a partner who asks for permission to humiliate you while there and tells you of his or her plan to possibly leave you without a ride home?
Bad faith in the midst of negotiations has historically been perceived as bad form but not an exception to the “non-binding” rule and certainly not the basis for expectation (lost profits) damages. To make this area even more challenging, a judicial determination of one company’s bad faith (e.g., trying to improve terms if the circumstances have become more favorable for the company) can easily be deemed by the shareholders/members of the same company to be the exercise of management’s fiduciary duty to maximize equity holders’ return. Failure to push for the best possible terms in the face of a non-binding term sheet could be found by another court to be a breach of that duty.
Whether bad faith should support an exception to the “non-binding” rule as a matter of law is an interesting question but the philosophy of law is rarely a topic businessmen and women wish to explore. Any number of things can make a deal that seemed attractive at a given point unacceptable some time later. Negotiations with respect to terms not included in the preliminary documents can be filled with real dispute; due diligence may reveal greater risks than anticipated; the industry-wide market may shift; or business may suddenly improve supporting more favorable terms for one party and less favorable terms for the other. Where the risk of the business enterprise does not begin to shift until after the execution of a definitive document, why should either party get the benefit of a preliminary bargain when the facts and circumstances supporting the transaction have changed?
While no one should be conducting negotiations in bad faith, the imposition of an implied duty of good faith and fair dealing in preliminary “non-binding” documents unless the parties specifically negate that obligation seems problematic. In contrast, once agreements are fully negotiated and signed, the covenant to act in good faith and engage in fair dealings is appropriate between business partners of all kinds. As found in other Delaware decisions, even where the contracting parties appear to have agreed to limit the scope of their common law and statutory fiduciary duties in a final document, good faith and fair dealing have an important role that should be implied and enforced by the courts. But, only after a final document is signed and sealed, however, should we be insisting a party trying to maximize their position “Did a bad, bad thing.”