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New article by Fisch details how courts can address the power imbalance in corporate governance

September 20, 2018

In a recent article, corporate governance expert and Penn Law professor Jill Fisch called for increased judicial scrutiny of board-adopted corporate governance bylaws in light of the imbalance of power between shareholders and boards of directors. Corporate boards of directors wield considerable power to adopt bylaws that limit shareholders’ rights. In recent years, courts deciding corporate law cases have deferred to such bylaws, likening them to binding contract provisions that directors and shareholders negotiated and signed.

In “Governance by Contract: The Implications for Corporate Bylaws,” published in the California Law Review, Fisch challenges this contractual approach, arguing that the shareholders’ unequal ability to challenge objectionable board-adopted bylaws belies the analogy. Fisch is the Saul A. Fox Distinguished Professor of Business Law and Co-Director of Penn Law’s Institute for Law and Economics, and her scholarship focuses on the intersection of business and law.

Corporate governance bylaws can have a profound effect on shareholders’ ability to influence the direction of a corporation. Board-adopted bylaws can constrain where shareholders may sue corporate directors and officers, dictate the methods for nominating competing director candidates, or fundamentally alter the method for counting shareholder votes in elections. The contractual approach has been instrumental in supporting courts’ decisions to defer to board-adopted corporate governance bylaws on the basis of arguments about autonomy, contractual freedom, and the efficiency of allowing corporate rules to be “freely modified by firm participants rather than imposing one-size-fits-all mandatory regulations.”

Focusing on the case law in Delaware, where the majority of U.S. companies are incorporated, Fisch details how the contractual theory achieved widespread acceptance in the wake of two landmark decisions from the Delaware Chancery Court and Supreme Court, respectively: Boilermakers Local 154 Ret. Fund v. Chevron Corp. in 2013, and ATP Tour, Inc. v. Deutscher Tennis Bund in 2014.

In Boilermakers, then-Vice Chancellor Strine wrote that “the bylaws of a Delaware corporation constitute part of a binding broader contract among the directors, officers, and stockholders” within the framework of Delaware’s statutory corporate laws. ATP extended that reasoning in its assessment of a “board-adopted bylaw that required a losing plaintiff-shareholder to pay the corporation’s litigation expenses.” The court upheld the bylaw “not merely based on a contract analogy,” Fisch explains, “but rather specifically treated the bylaw in question as a contract term.”   

The contractual approach relies upon two factors that were articulated in Boilermakers. The first is the theory that shareholders “implicitly consent to be bound by board-adopted bylaws when they buy stock in a corporation with a charter that confers that power on the board[.]” The second, Fisch writes, is the shareholders’ “right to challenge board-adopted bylaws,” including by adopting and amending bylaws themselves.

The article focuses on the second factor, with Fisch arguing that “for a variety of reasons shareholder power to amend the bylaws is more limited than the Boilermakers decision suggests.” Accordingly, she writes, “shareholders are limited in their ability to constrain board actions with which they disagree.”

Fisch details some of the major limitations, both legal and practical, on shareholders’ ability to challenge board-adopted bylaws. On the legal side, Fisch notes that shareholders’ power to adopt bylaws is “not co-extensive with that of the board of directors,” because the Delaware General Corporation Law (DGCL) “provides the board, but not the shareholders, with broad management powers over the affairs of the corporation.” As a result, Delaware courts have decided that shareholders may not adopt any bylaws that would allow them to “make substantive business decisions for the Company.”

The DGCL also limits shareholders’ authority through its “provisions expressly authorizing shareholders to vote on bylaws that address particular issues.” These subject-specific grants of power “reinforce the idea that shareholder authority over corporate affairs is limited and that all residual authority is vested in the board of directors,” Fisch writes.

Finally, she notes, “[a]lthough shareholders have the power to adopt and amend the bylaws, so does the board of directors. As a result, even if the shareholders adopt a bylaw, their action may be overturned by the board.”

While shareholders may be able to respond to objectionable board-adopted bylaws by withholding support for or even removing the directors who adopt them, Fisch argues that these methods “are not enough to close the existing gap between board and shareholder power.”

Shareholders also contend with practical, non-statutory limitations on their influence. Among them, Fisch cites the collective action problem, which is heightened by supermajority voting requirements at many companies. Such requirements “raise the threshold required to amend or repeal a board-adopted bylaw.”

An additional challenge arises from the fact that “many shareholders hold their stock through institutional intermediaries such as pension funds and mutual funds, in which the power to vote rests in the hands of the institutional agent” who may have different voting preferences than a retail investor. Fisch also points to the gatekeeping role of the Securities and Exchange Commission as an impediment, as the agency can grant companies permission to exclude shareholder-proposed bylaw amendments from proxy statements.

Because shareholders’ “power to act through the adoption, amendment, and repeal of bylaws is, for a variety of reasons, less expansive than board power,” Fisch writes, “the level of judicial deference reflected in Boilermakers and ATP – deference that is based on the contractual theory – may be inappropriate.”

Accordingly, she argues, rather than granting additional powers to shareholders by statute – which would bring business-related risks – courts “could instead rethink the existing level of deference given to board-adopted governance provisions and subject those provisions to greater judicial scrutiny.”

To that end, Fisch draws from existing Delaware case law to propose a two-part test that courts could use to conduct “intermediate-level review” of board-adopted corporate governance bylaws. “First, the directors must show that they had reasonable grounds for believing that a danger to corporate policy and effectiveness exist[s],” she writes. “Second, the board’s response must be ‘reasonable in relation to the threat posed.’”

The test “would allow courts to play a meaningful role in preventing boards from adopting bylaws that excessively interfere with shareholder rights,” Fisch argues. “The need for courts to exercise such scrutiny responds to the reality that the corporation is not truly a contract, and shareholders, due to existing legal and practical obstacles, cannot protect themselves effectively.”