The recent news about the eleventh hour award of nearly $4 billion in bonuses to Merrill Lynch employees is only the latest in a series of events exciting enthusiasm for "clawbacks" of allegedly excessive or undeserved Wall Street bonuses. Reports that New York City financial firms disbursed $18.4 billion in cash bonuses is 2008 added further fuel to the fire.


Senator Chris Dodd stated, with particular reference to executives receiving bonuses from financial institutions benefiting from government bailouts, "I’m going to look at every possible legal means to get that money back," adding "I’m going to be urging – in fact not urging, demanding—that the Treasury Department figures some way to get the money back."


President Obama, for his part, referred to the award of bonuses during a recession and while financial companies are seeking financial help to be "shameful" and the "height of irresponsibility."


The idea of compelling executives to disgorge compensation has been a recurring part of the public discussion surrounding the current economic crisis. The suggestion that the government should clawback financiers’ prior compensation has been a rallying cry for academics (here) and commentators (here) alike.


Indeed, the Dealbook blog reports (here) from Davos that a discussion of the topic of executive compensation turned a conference session into " a bit of a lynch mob, Davos-style" in response to a proposal to force those financiers who benefitted from the boom to "disgorge some of the money they ‘earned’ in bonuses based on profits that have since vanished."


This lynch mob mentality is familiar to those who recall the public outcry that accompanied the last era of corporate scandals. In fact, the perceived compensation excesses at Enron and Tyco, among others, resulted in a statutory provision specifically designed for the purpose of clawing back unwarranted compensation, Section 304 of the Sarbanes Oxley Act.


Section 304 has in fact been used to recover executive compensation, in the noteworthy options backdating settlement involving UnitedHealth Group (about which refer here). However, the fact that over six years’ after the enactment of the statutory clawback provision that there is only one noteworthy example of its utilization underscores the provision’s limited usefulness.


Simply put, and as discussed in detail here, Section 304 has several critical limitations: the provision lacks a private right of action; the provision’s language is poorly written; and it can only be used against the CEO and the CFO, limiting its use against other executives.


Moreover, as discussed in a December 24, 2008 article (here), a federal district court recently ruled that the provision cannot be enforced against a company’s CEO or CFO if the company did not restate its financial results, even if the company had accounting discrepancies. The restriction clearly could further limit the provision’s usefulness and could constrain the government’s attempt to use the provision to recover the recent controversial bonus payments.


There are, however, other legal avenues that litigants might pursue to try to recover executive compensation, as discussed in the January 29, 2009 New York Law Journal article entitled "Limiting, Clawing Back Executive Pay in the Wake of the Financial Bailout" (here) by David Pitofsky and Matthew Tulchin of the Goodwin Proctor law firm.


The authors note that while the business judgment rule traditionally has shielded compensation decisions "shareholders seeking equitable rescission and restitution via derivative suits have been successful in recovering ill-gotten gains, even in the absence of compelling proof of personal impropriety." The authors cite as an example the recovery of $40 million in bonuses from HealthSouth CEO Richard Scrushy.


The authors also reference the mixed results presented in recent attempts to use state corporate governance laws to recoup executive compensation. On the one hand, they note the unsuccessful regulatory efforts to recoup a $187 million compensation package from former NYSE Chairman Richard Grasso (about which refer here).


On the other hand, the authors also note the more recent and successful use of New York’s fraudulent conveyance laws by current New York Attorney General Andrew Cuomo, who obtained AIG’s agreement, in response to the Attorney General’s demand letter, to freeze salaries and eliminate bonuses for certain former top AIG executives. (An October 15, 2008 New York Times article discussing Cuomo’s letter can be found here.)


University of California law professor Jesse Fried, among others, suggests (here) that the New York fraudulent conveyance laws, upon which Cuomo relied in his efforts involving AIG, might be used to recover unwarranted bonuses. Fried points out that the statute applies to all firms in New York, even those that have not applied for bankruptcy, and gives creditors the right to recover payments made to insiders under certain circumstances.


Provisions regarding executive pay were in fact a part of the federal bailout bill enacted by Congress last fall. However, amendments specify that the provision only applies to firms that receive government bailout funds by selling assets to the government in an auction. Because the bailout funds have not been deployed as originally intended to buy assets, the compensation recoupment provision may prove "toothless," as discussed in a December 18, 2008 Washington Post article (here).


Nevertheless, the lynch mob mentality in evidence at Davos is likely to continue to arise elsewhere, and in all likelihood, popular interest in recouping executive compensation will continue as a prominent topic while Congress continues to grapple with the current economic crisis.


Among other things, we can also expect continued discussion on whether or not Congress should enact a legislative limit on executive pay, as discussed in Robert Frank’s January 3, 3009 New York Times column (here).


In addition we can expect increasing pressure on companies to adopt their own clawback provisions, either as part of their incentive compensation plan, as governance policy, or as a statement of intent. My prior post discussing corporate clawback policies can be found here.


Whenever the issue of possible litigation against corporate officials comes up, the question arises concerning who will bear the costs. Obviously, the amounts of any compensation clawed back or disgorged would not be covered by the typical D&O policy. However, under the wording of the typical policy, a corporate official that is the target of a compensation clawback lawsuit would have substantial grounds on which to argue that his or her costs of defending against the suit should be covered.


To the extent that current popular sentiment for compensation recoupment translates into litigation, the resulting defense expense could become yet another area of growing claims expense for increasingly beleaguered insurers.


The Heat is On: Banco Santander started it, with its offer to make good on its clients’ Madoff related losses. The word is out now, and at least some other banks have gotten the message.


As reported in the January 29, 2009 Financial Times (here), the National Bank of Kuwait has fully reimbursed all of its clients that lost money on the Madoff-related Ponzi scheme — full reimbursement meaning both the clients initial investment as well as "the gains, thought to be ficticious, that they thought they had made."


As the Financial TImes article notes, the NBK move "puts pressure on other banks and fund managers whose clients lost money in Mr. Madoff’s alleged fraud." (I wonder why the FT found it necessary to add the work "alleged.") The article goes on to note that NBK had the advantage of relatiively small losses to cover


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