Reprinted from the April 2023 edition of Business Law Today. Further duplication without permission is prohibited.
By Susan A. Maslow
In the late 2010s and early 2020s, ESG—a wide-capturing acronym standing for “environmental, social and governance”—roared into action, emerging both domestically and abroad as one of the defining trends in investing, regulation, finance, and corporate governance.
ESG’s proponents have long sought a unified framework through which to describe interrelated standards of environmental sustainability and human rights, and bring them into greater alignment with the private sector’s traditional profit-seeking goals. This change in approach arguably gained in prominence after the Business Roundtable’s 2019 declaration on the purpose of the corporation, endorsing a vision of corporations being led for the benefit of all stakeholders, not just shareholders. Though many question the sincerity and commitment of the Roundtable, the ESG movement was super-charged, and it achieved mainstream status during the 2020 protests for racial justice, which spurred companies to integrate new goals for diversity, equity, inclusion, and racial justice into their broader ESG policies. Over the course of the last eighteen months, public company boards have been sued for breaches of fiduciary duty based on alleged failures to react to ESG factor “red flags.”
The European Commission published the long-awaited Proposal for a Directive of the European Parliament and of the Council on Corporate Sustainability Due Diligence (the “EU Directive”) on February 23, 2022. It has been suggested that text found in the EU Directive “risks making the law ineffective” by implying that companies can fulfil their obligations by simply adding clauses in their contracts with suppliers and verifying compliance with “suitable industry initiatives or independent third-party verification”. The criticism is that the “contractual assurances” and verification required by Items 2(b) and 4 of Article 7, and Items 3(c) and 5 of Article 8 allow companies to shift their responsibilities on to their suppliers and to knowingly get away with harm by conducting ineffective audits or participating in voluntary industry schemes that have failed in the past.
The argument that companies can find an easy safe harbor within the EU Directive is misguided. Such condemnation places undue emphasis on the first two elements to achieve the negation of civil liability under Article 22 and ignores the third factor. A company must prove not only that (i) it used appropriate contract clauses (under to-be-provided Commission guidance), and (ii) it verified compliance, but must also prove (iii) it was reasonable to expect the action taken, including the verification process, “would be adequate to prevent, mitigate, bring to an end or minimize the extent of the adverse impact.” The last element is unfairly discounted by those that fear delivery of a safe harbor to industry influences. In addition, due account is not given to Article 22’s additional text that insists company efforts (or absence of efforts) to remediate any discovered damage and the extent of pre-harm support and collaboration to address adverse impacts in its value chains (or absence of support and collaboration) is also to be considered in determining liability.
Articles 4 to 11, 25 and 26 of the EU Directive impose due diligence obligations on subject companies and address the duty of care required of their directors in setting up and overseeing due diligence. The EU Directive has numerous “Whereas” clauses expressing a desire to incorporate the UNGPs and OECD Guidelines which require shared responsibility between buyers and suppliers. It should not be read as suggesting companies avoid liability by simply demanding conventional representations and warranties from a first-tier supplier without shared responsibility for thorough retrospective and prospective investigations to identify, prevent and end adverse impact. Any company that believes “contract assurances” without a detailed and regularly reviewed corporate strategy to address human rights, climate change and environmental consequences using contracts as one of multiple tools is destined to be found liable for damages.
Perhaps Article 22 with respect to a company’s potential civil liability could be clearer with respect to this point if it included a reference to Articles 4,5 and 6 in lieu of the existing limited reference to the obligations laid down in Articles 7(Preventing potential adverse impacts) and Article 8 (Bringing actual adverse impacts to an end). But Article 12 (Model contract clauses) of the EU Directive includes a promise that the Commission will provide guidance for model contract clauses and Article 13 (Guidelines) states the Commission, in consultation with Member states, stakeholders, the European Union Agency for Fundamental Rights, the European Environment Agency, and appropriate international bodies may issue guidelines for specific sectors or specific adverse impacts. The to-be-developed model contract clauses should reflect the characteristics and obligations found in Version 2 of the Model Contract Clauses (the “MCCs”) drafted by the American Bar Association Business Law Section’s Working Group found here Center for Human Rights. The MCCs include provisions which require:
● a joint responsibility by buyer and seller to engage in human rights due diligence, in line with the UNGPs and the OECD Guidance;
● a commitment by buyer to engage in responsible purchasing practices that will support supplier’s obligations to avoid adverse human rights impacts; and
● in the event of an adverse impact, a joint commitment that: (a) the parties will prioritize victim-centered human rights remediation above conventional contract remedies (that compensate the non-breaching party, not victims); and (b) each party’s participation in remediation shall be proportionate to each party’s causation of or contribution to the adverse impact.
The EU Directive and the right contract clauses and due diligence guidance can change the way supply chains in global markets have worked for centuries. Finally, a real tool to address modern slavery and the environmental destruction of entire communities.
Model Contract Clauses to Protect Workers in International Supply Chains, Version 2.0
A working group formed under the American Bar Association (ABA) Business Law Section has announced a revised set of model contract clauses for international supply chains. The 2021 Report and Model Contract Clauses, Version 2.0 (MCCs 2.0) from the Working Group to Draft Human Rights Protections in International Supply Contracts are now finalized and can be found on the ABA Center for Human Rights site. The MCCs 2.0 are one of several initiatives within the Business Law Section’s implementation of the ABA Model Principles on Labor Trafficking and Child Labor. The MCCs 2.0 are offered as a practical, contractual tool to assist inside and outside corporate counsel in efforts to reflect their clients’ commitment to stated human rights policies and desire to abide by international human rights soft and evolving hard law. Given the likely European Union and United Kingdom implementation of mandatory human rights due diligence, the mounting number of Withhold Release Orders in US ports, and growing investor concern with respect to environmental, social and governance (ESG) liability, the Model Contract Clauses should be of interest to all companies with complex supply chains and those that provide such companies legal services. Designed as a modular, practical tool for corporate counsel, the 2021 MCCs 2.0 are the first model contract clauses to implement “human rights due diligence” obligations in supply contracts. They attempt to integrate the principles contained in the UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights (the “UNGPs”) and the OECD Due Diligence Guidance for Responsible Business Conduct into international contracts. The MCCs translate these principles into contractual obligations that require buyer and supplier to cooperate in protecting human rights and make both parties responsible for the human rights impact of their business relationship.
In 2021, entities formed in Pennsylvania and entities formed in other states that have registered to do business in Pennsylvania must file a Decennial Report with the Department of State. This requirement applies to business corporations, non-profit corporations, limited liability companies, limited partnerships, and limited liability partnerships. If a report is not filed, the entity will no longer have exclusive use of its company name or trade name and the name will become available for others to use it. While an entity can file after the December 31, 2021 deadline, a third party registering with the name during the gap period will have rights to the name, and the original entity will not be permitted to reinstate its exclusive rights to the name.
Earlier this year, the Department of State mailed notices to the registered address for each entity regarding its name, however, you should not rely on receiving such a notice to determine whether or not you have to file. All entities are required to file unless they made new or amended filings between January 1, 2012 and December 31, 2021.
The required forms can be found on the Department of State website at https://www.dos.pa.gov/BusinessCharities/Business/Resources/Pages/Decennial-Filing.aspx. There is a filing fee of $70, and the filing deadline is December 31, 2021.
If you are not sure whether you need to file this report for your entity, or if you have any questions regarding this requirement, feel free to contact us. We caution you not to rely upon the Pennsylvania Department of State’s website search feature to tell you whether or not your entity is required to file the decennial report.
When a business owner gets divorced, the business is often the major asset subject to distribution. Accordingly, the business and its’ ongoing operations are almost always implicated in the divorce. In most cases that I see, the business is a small business with one owner or a few owners. In the best case scenario, the business owners have planned in advance for situations that arise in a divorce through a Shareholders Agreement, Prenuptial Agreements and/or Postnuptial Agreements. Hopefully, the parties’ respective family law and business law attorneys can work together to best protect the business owner to ensure as smooth a transition as possible. Hopefully, the relevant agreements have set forth a valuation formula which can be upheld at law for purposes of the divorce. Counsel can also work together to insure that income is clearly defined and reported so that support is less contentious. Additionally, advance planning can be used to address the below issues so that a divorce does not mean the end to the business. While advance planning is not a guarantee, it will provide additional protections to the business owner.
A divorce can impact internal and external business relationships, support (between spouses and child support), equitable distribution (division of marital property) and business control. In terms of business relationships, banking relationships can come into play, especially if the spouse is a personal guarantee of the loan. It is often not easy or possible to have the spouse removed from the guarantee. The spouse may also have a role in the business and it may not be feasible for them to remain involved. For example, in cases where the spouse is client facing, a delicate balance will be necessary to transition the spouse out of the business without negatively impacting the business. This can be a challenge if the divorce is acrimonious. Finally, the roles of the parties within the business may create sustainability issues going forward. In some cases, one spouse has a particular talent (i.e. software development, marketing creativity or scientific knowledge) which cannot be easily replaced and without which the business may not be able to survive. Such issues impact valuation but also succession and strategy on distribution of assets.
As for support, when a business owner is a party to a support action, whether for support for a spouse or for a child, calculating income can be challenging. The definition of income for purposes of determining support is very broad and is not the same as taxable income. There can be practical issues in obtaining information and documents which reflect the income. Legal issues can also arise, such as whether income is being reported or if the court can compel income or retained earnings to be distributed from the business to the owner to pay support.
In equitable distribution, the business must be valued so that division of the assets can occur. Business control also comes into play. It is unusual for parties to retain joint ownership or for the non-business owner spouse to receive shares of the business so creativity and/or structured payments are often necessary unless there is enough cash reserved for an outright payment. The payout can cause a financial strain for the business.
To best protect a business in the event of a divorce of the business owner, it is advisable for business owners to have advance planning through the mechanisms listed above. While not a guarantee, it will place the business owner spouse in a much better position than ignoring these issues all together.
As a business lawyer, I have spent years counseling small to mid-sized companies across a wide range of industries. I have advised clients on routine to complex business legal issues that arise during the start-up stage through operation and growth stages, and have structured many exit strategies and created successful succession plans in various ownership documents. What I love best about providing sound legal guidance to business owners through the life cycle of their business is helping them solve issues that arise both from a legal perspective and also from a financial perspective. Helping clients navigate through contractual, employment, finance, IP protection, and other daily issues so they can focus on achieving their goals of growth, maximization of profits, and sustainability, all while minimizing their potential for risk and exposure is a vital objective in my practice.
I have recently been invited to participate for the next several weeks as an advisor in an exciting new local event – The Spark Bowl. Co-sponsored by Delaware Valley University, it’s Small Business and Entrepreneurship Center and the Central Bucks Chamber of Commerce, this event is a local competition aimed at fostering innovation, growth, and entrepreneurship. At the First Annual Spark Bowl event to be held on December 11th, students and local entrepreneurs in and around Bucks County will “pitch” their businesses plans to Spark’s judges, who will select a winner who will receive prizes and benefits to include monetary funding as well as access to expert advisors. The contest will be judged by experienced investors who have a desire to support innovation and economic growth and prosperity within the local community. As part of DelVal’s experiential learning program, DVU student teams will work with final contestants to prepare for the competition under the guidance of DelVal faculty and SBEC advisors. Professor William Viel of DVU’s Business and Information Management Department is the Director of the SBEC. It is quite a valuable resource to this community to have such an incubator right here in Central Bucks. Please click here to learn more about The Spark Bowl at Delaware Valley University.
After many years of working with business owners, some who were successful, and some who were not, it seems evident that the best predicator of sustainable business growth and success is: planning by asking the right questions up-front; creating detailed business plans and product or service models; determining the expected demand for their product or service in a low or highly competitive market; understanding both traditional and non-traditional financing alternatives; putting together the right team of professionals to help them produce, deliver and promote their business and its products/services; dealing with operational challenges and various levels of legal compliance properly, all while being willing to assess weaknesses and promote strengths.
The Spark Bowl has inspired me to remind my clients to think about why they are doing what they are doing, as they work through the day-to-day challenges (legal and otherwise) of operating and sustaining a business they built and love.
Good Luck to all the participants on December 11th!
Many an article or blog post concerns minority shareholder rights, shareholder oppression or shareholder “freeze out”. As business and litigation lawyers, we are always mindful of the rights between and among business owners, what can and cannot be done in furtherance of those rights and the legal mechanisms applicable to the exercise of those rights. We frequently write on the strategies available to a minority shareholder such as examination of books and records, claims of breach of fiduciary duty and the potential for appointment of a corporate receiver or custodian.
This is not that article.
The fact is, being a minority shareholder means that, by definition, there are often things you simply cannot control. A shareholder or member in a business entity who possesses less than a controlling stake must have reasonable expectations as to the rights attendant to such ownership and understand the limits of such rights so as to make informed decisions concerning the investment of time, energy and money in pursuit of the collective enterprise.
Let’s start with who owns the remaining shares in the company. In the absence of an agreement to the contrary, the majority shareholder is free to transfer the majority (said another way; controlling) interest in the company without the consent of the minority. A transaction can result in a change in control such that the minority shareholder suddenly works for someone entirely new. While a minority shareholder can enjoy “dissenter’s rights”, such rights are applicable in very narrow situations specified by statute. In fact, in the absence of a prohibition, the stock in a business entity is readily transferrable, just like on an exchange, if a buyer and/or seller can be identified.
Internally, a minority shareholder can find it difficult to impact the direction of the business. Depending on the by-laws of the entity and, frankly, the will of the majority, a minority shareholder may or may not have a voice on the board of directors and thus may not possess a vote on material decisions such as the persons who will fulfill critical roles in the executive branch of the business such as the officers of the corporation. More importantly, a minority shareholder may not have input on the financial operations of the company including distributions, financing arrangements, major purchases of inventory, equipment or talent. All of which can dramatically affect the annual bottom line.
Even employment is not guaranteed to a minority in interest. In the absence of an agreement to the contrary, the employment of a minority shareholder may simply be at will in the same way as the sales force, the administrative assistants or the custodian. Certainly, terminating a minority’s employment could be one of the factors argued in a freeze out, but in the absence of other factors, termination of employment alone may not give rise to a cause of action. Certain courts have suggested continued employment may be implicit in a “founder” but those situations are few and far between and a plaintiff/minority shareholder must be prepared with more to argue than the end of employment if freeze out is alleged.
In business, like politics, being in the minority means sometimes you are powerless to immediately change the course of the company. Sometimes, a group of shareholders can band together to pool their collective influence for their mutual benefit. Other times, the best strategy is to become the majority even when the acquisition of additional shares comes at an unnecessary or unanticipated cost. Under any circumstances, rights afforded to the majority are not constrained solely because a minority shareholder does not agree with a particular course of action.
As a litigator, I am often contacted by minority shareholders who are frustrated by their lack of control or influence. While the law offers certain protection for holders of such minority interests, those remedies are factually limited and are often unsatisfactory even if granted in full after significant expense in litigation. Certainly an appropriate agreement outlining the respective rights and obligations can change the analysis. Business owners should consider, and plan for, what rights their stake in the company provides.
This is the fourth installment of my continuing blog series explaining the main elements of a contract, which are outlined on the attached infographic . My goal is to demystify some of these basic provisions to help business owners have a better general understanding of what they are signing.
This article discusses representations, warranties, and covenants, which are the “bones” of the parties’ agreement. These provisions represent the statements of the underlying facts, mutual assurances, and promises of performance which form the basis of the parties’ mutual understanding. It’s not uncommon to find these concepts used interchangeably in a contract – “ABC represents, warrants, and covenants…”, but the meaning and effect of each of these are quite distinct from one another. It’s important to understand these distinctions so that your contracts accurately reflect the assumptions, obligations, and risks that you are comfortable with.
A representation is a statement of past or present fact (either express or implied) made by one party to induce the other party to enter into the agreement. For example, the seller of a business might represent that gross revenues from the business were a certain dollar amount for the past several years or that there are no claims asserted against the business. If a representation proves to have been untrue when made, the injured party will have a claim of fraudulent misrepresentation if she can prove that: (i) the party making the representation knew or should have known the statement was false when made; (ii) the other party intended the injured party to rely on the statement; and (iii) the injured party’s reliance on the statement in entering into the agreement was justifiable. The injured party can seek monetary damages for its losses or it may ask the court to rescind (void) the entire contract. It is therefore very important to avoid “over-representing” in your contracts.
A warranty is essentially a promise that an assertion made by a party is true, coupled with an implied promise of indemnity if the assertion made by the party is false. As such, a warranty is both present-focused, like a representation, and forward-looking, like a covenant. If a warranty is breached, the injured party is entitled to be made whole; this usually means that the injured party can recover the difference between the value of the contract as agreed upon and the value of the contract in light of the breach. In other words, the injured party is entitled to receive the benefit of the bargain he initially made. The injured party is not required to demonstrate that he relied on the warranty or that the other party knew that the warranty was false when made.
Often, but not always, representations and warranties go hand-in-hand to allow the parties to preserve remedies that are as broad as possible. In complex agreements, the parties usually spend a significant amount of time negotiating how the risks embodied by representations and warranties should be allocated by qualifying and limiting these concepts (e.g., a representation is true to the best of the maker’s knowledge and/or in all material respects).
Product and service warranties are specialized contractual provisions that are actually hybrids of representations, warranties, and covenants. These provisions commonly create limited express warranties that apply to the products or services, identify specific contractual remedies for breach, and disclaim implied warranties that are provided by law.
A covenant is a party’s promise to perform an action or to refrain from performing an action. It relates to the future, as opposed to representations, which are provided as of a specific date. An example of a covenant is a borrower’s promise to make loan payments in accordance with the terms of a promissory note. Covenants can be express or implied. Pennsylvania law imposes an implied covenant of good faith and fair dealing in most contracts.
Stay tuned for Part 5 of this series, which will move on to discuss some possible hidden perils of what is commonly dismissed as “just boilerplate” language.
This post continues my series explaining the main elements of a contract, which are outlined on the attached infographic. My goal is to demystify some of these basic provisions to help business owners have a better general understanding of what they are signing.
Another key element of a typical contract is a condition. A condition is an event that must occur or a fact that must be true before a party is obligated to perform his obligations under a contract. Conditions are used to allocate risk by making a party’s obligations, which would otherwise be absolute, dependent on circumstances that are usually outside of that party’s control. The risk of those circumstances not occurring is thus shifted to the other party. For example, your agreement to buy a parcel of real estate might be conditioned on your ability to obtain financing. If you are unable to get financing, you are not obligated to proceed with the sale. Your failure to perform your obligations is excused and is not a breach; the seller will have no claim for damages against you based on your failure to perform. A condition is not necessarily tied to a third party’s performance of an action (such as a bank agreeing to lend money to the buyer) but is sometimes linked to the performance of an obligation by the other party. Some conditions are dependent on weather or similar events that are altogether outside of the contracting parties’ and third parties’ control.
Sometimes a condition is drafted so that its non-fulfillment excuses some, but not all, of a party’s obligations under the agreement. As a result, if the condition is not met, the agreement remains in force as to all other obligations. On the other hand, a condition may be drafted so that the entire agreement will terminate if the condition is not satisfied (such as the property sale example above). It is important to note that the party benefitting from the condition may choose to waive the condition and proceed with performance under the agreement. Further, if the party whose obligations are conditioned performs those obligations even though the condition has not been satisfied, he may be deemed to have waived the condition.
Conditions are not necessarily identified in a single specific section of a contract, but often are sprinkled throughout the agreement where the parties’ obligations are identified. Because of the impact of an unsatisfied condition, it is important to be able to recognize conditions on the other party’s obligations before you enter into the agreement. Look for words such as “if”, “provided that”, “in the event that”, “subject to”, “on the condition that”, “conditioned on”, and “contingent on”.
Before you sign any contract, you should be sure to assess whether any of your obligations should be conditioned on the occurrence of facts or events. If so, it is important that those conditions be clearly identified. Similarly, you should review the agreement to identify any conditions to the other party’s obligations and their impact on the agreement overall and your rights under the agreement. Ask yourself:
• Does the agreement set out unrealistic, vague or unpredictable conditions under which the other party could be released from its contractual obligations to me? Will I have incurred unnecessary expenses prior to the determination whether the condition has been satisfied (e.g., purchase of supplies or services)?
What impact will a release of the other party’s obligations have on my business (e.g., finding a substitute vendor)?
• What actions or omissions (by me or key staff) could result in a release of the other parties’ contractual obligations?
• Are any conditions on my performance needed to provide a way out in the case of prohibitive or unacceptable changes in circumstances down the line?
In summary, contractual agreements will ultimately only yield the intended benefits to your business if they are enforceable, and that means understanding under what conditions some or all of the other party’s obligations might be excused.
Stay tuned for Part 4 of this series, which will move on to the next contract element shown on the infographic: Representations, Warranties, and Covenants.
In 2008, Pennsylvania enacted the Home Improvement Consumer Protection Act (HICPA) designed to protect home owners from unscrupulous contractors. However, it is also a trap for the unwary home improvement contractors. In addition to its registration requirements, HICPA specifies what must be in a contract for home improvement services and what may not be in these contracts.
HICPA applies not only to contractors performing renovations and remodels, but also many other types of services including most landscaping work, security systems, fencing companies and concrete work. Any individual or company performing these services needs to be aware of the requirements imposed by HICPA and can read more in this client alert.