Corporate Versus Individual Accountability
posted by Michelle Harner
The recent announcements that the SEC reached a new $150 million settlement with Bank of America (see here) and that the New York Attorney General commenced civil litigation against certain current and former Bank of America executives (see here) are an interesting study in corporate versus individual accountability for corporate misconduct. The SEC did not pursue any actions against the individual executives at Bank of America (see here); rather, the SEC’s action and resulting settlement focus on the corporate entity. The Attorney General’s action, on the other hand, focuses on alleged individual misconduct.
The different approaches may be due in part to different legal standards of liability. In general, the SEC must establish intentional misconduct on the part of individuals in this context (see also here); the applicable New York law does not include this type of scienter requirement. (A cynic also might say that the difference relates to public opinion and Andrew Cuomo’s potential campaign for the governor’s office.) Nevertheless, the New York Attorney General’s approach appears to address more directly the concerns expressed by Judge Rakoff when he rejected the SEC’s original $33 million settlement with Bank of America (see also here).
The different approaches also raise an important question regarding whether corporate or individual liability is a more appropriate or effective remedy and deterrent for corporate misconduct. How far do we want to extend the legal fiction of the corporation? How in either situation do we avoid the corporation and its shareholders paying for individual misconduct that harms the corporation and its shareholders (e.g., indemnification)? How do we distinguish between good faith, honest mistakes and reckless, cavalier misconduct? And how do we level appropriate sanctions against individual wrongdoers without deterring other qualified individuals from serving on corporate boards?
These are difficult questions that courts, legislatures and commentators try to balance and address. I am not convinced that we have reached an appropriate equilibrium, and perhaps we never will. But I think we could benefit from acknowledging that corporate misconduct is caused by individuals and that some individual accountability is necessary to deter future misconduct. Notably, that remedy does not need to be a monetary penalty. In fact, public reprimands and temporary and permanent bars could be even more effective because those remedies impact reputation and arguably make it more difficult for the individual to commit similar wrongs in the future. (For a discussion of bars and the SEC’s and courts’ use of them, see here and here.) They also may ameliorate the concern that holding an individual liable for the amount of losses typically associated with corporate misconduct is too punitive. (For other means to address this concern, see here.) As we continue to reflect on and try to learn from the economic crisis of the past few years, I hope we consider alternatives to link more directly corporate misconduct and corporate accountability.