One of the most basic notions in our legal system is that liability attaches only to those who act with intent or knowledge. But as detailed in a front-page September 27, 2011 Wall Street Journal article (here), Congress has in recent decades enacted numerous provisions imposing criminal liability regardless of intent. Among the many troubling aspects of this trend are the implications for corporate directors and officers, who often are the target of these strict liability provisions and who increasingly have liability imposed on them for matters in which they were not involved and of which they were not even aware.


As the Journal article explains, a “bedrock principle” of our legal system is that criminal liability cannot be imposed without “mens rea,” or a guilty mind. But as the article details, Congress has “repeatedly crafted laws that weaken or disregard the notion of criminal intent.” As a result, things that “once might have been considered simply a mistake” are “now sometimes punishable by jail time.”


The article cites a number of recently enacted criminal provisions, particularly certain enactments regarding wildlife issues and firearms violations. One example cited refers to the imposition of a 15-year criminal sentence for possession of a single bullet (in violation of firearms restrictions for convicted felons).


Among the areas the article references that have seen the enactment of these types of provisions is white collar crime. The article specifically cites the provisions of the Sarbanes Oxley Act that make it “easier for prosecutors to bring obstruction of justice cases related to the destruction of evidence.” The article explains how these provisions passed as part of the larger bill without full or appropriate consideration of the implications.


The Sarbanes Oxley Act provision cited is far from the only recent statutory enactment or judicial development that potentially imposes liability on corporate officials without culpability. Indeed, just a few days ago, on September 13, 2011, another Wall Street Journal article entitled “U.S. Targets Drug Executives” (here) described how federal regulators have increasingly been using the judicially developed “responsible corporate officer doctrine” to pursue criminal prosecutions against corporate executives for federal food and drug law violations.


As I discussed in my own earlier look at the “responsible corporate officer doctrine” (here), courts have the doctrine to impose criminal liability on corporate officials who were not involved in or even aware of the violations. (The word “responsible” in the name of the doctrine references responsibility for the corporation not for the conduct.) As the September 13 Journal article details, the use of this doctrine can not only result in the imposition of criminal fines and penalties, but the convictions obtained in reliance on the doctrine can then be used to exclude convicted executives from Medicare and Medicaid, in effect turning their conviction into “career-ending punishment.”


As discussed here, the doctrine’s application has not been limited just to food and drug violations but has also been extended to violations of environmental law as well, and also has been used as the basis for the imposition of civil liability as well as criminal liability.


Nor do these instances represent the only examples of imposition of liability without culpability – to the contrary, they are consistent with a growing willingness of government regulators and prosecutors to try to impose liability without regard to involvement in or awareness of the alleged wrongdoing. For example, there have been multiple instances recently where the SEC has pursued enforcement actions against corporate officials without regard to their lack of knowledge of the alleged wrongdoing.


First, as described here, the SEC has now on several occasions used its authority under Section 304 of the Sarbanes-Oxley Act to “clawback” compensation corporate executives earned a time when their companies were committing accounting fraud. For example, most recently former Beazer Homes CFO James O’Leary was compelled to return $1.4 million in bonus compensation even though he was himself not charged with any wrongdoing in connection with the company’s accounting fraud. As I noted in my prior post, though the SEC’s implementation of the compensation clawback is statutorily authorized, the imposition of a forfeiture without culpability or fault raises troubling questions, including basic questions of fairness.


In a separate development discussed here, the SEC recently filed an enforcement action seeking to impose control person liability on two officers of Nature’s Sunshine Products for the company’s Foreign Corrupt Practices Act violations – even though the two officials were not alleged to have any involvement in or awareness of the wrongful conduct.


Unfortunately, this trend toward the expansion of liability without culpability seems to be growing. Indeed, the Dodd-Frank Act greatly expands the compensation clawback ,  by requiring the major exchanges to adopt requirements for all listed companies to adopt provisions for the recovery in the event of a restatement of bonus compensation from any current or former executive officer who earned bonus compensation during the three years preceding the restatement.


The September 27 Journal article suggests that Congress is creating these types of exposures simply because it is neglecting to consider traditional intent requirements. I am not so sure, particularly when it comes to liability for corporate officials, as there seems to be this pervasive notion that corporate officials deserve liability and are getting off “scot free” and this in turn is leading to an increasing willingness to impose liability because of the position rather than because of their culpability.  


In recent months, I have taken on several commentators who have tried to argue that corporate officials need to be held liable more often (here), or that there is something wrong with our legal system when corporate officials cannot be held liable more frequently (here). I am concerned that general presumption that corporate executives are somehow blameworthy and deserving of liability are behind this trend toward imposing liability on corporate executives without actual culpability.


There is an unfortunate trend in our society to assume that when something has gone wrong that somebody has to be punished. This general proclivity to look for someone to blame is exacerbated by a general willingness to demonize corporate “fat cats,” which in turn leads some to conclude that corporate executives deserve liability because of their position, without regard of whether they actually did anything culpable.


I appreciate that many believe corporate executives need to be held accountable. Nevertheless, I am concerned that as a result of the increased tendency to impost liability on corporate executives without culpability, there is a contrary danger that corporate executives could be held liable too frequently, or at least in instances when they have done nothing themselves to deserve it. Scapegoating any individual – even a corporate executive – for circumstances in which they were not involved and of which they were not even aware is inconsistent with some of the most basic assumptions of a well-ordered society governed by law.


Along with all the other concerns, these types of proceedings may also raise D&O insurance coverage issues. Corporate officials in most instances would not have insurance coverage for the various fines and penalties imposed in these actions or for disgorged compensation. But the executives might well seek insurance coverage of their legal fees incurred in defending themselves in these actions. One question that might be asked in many of these types of cases is whether or not the proceedings involve an alleged “Wrongful Act” as is required to trigger coverage. Should these questions arise, these executives will want to be able to argue that the applicable D&O policy in any event covers them for allegations against them in their capacities as directors and officers “and in their status as such.”


Bank Director and Officer Defenses: As I have noted in prior posts (most recently here), there are now a growing number of actions against the directors and officers of failed banks brought by the FDIC as the failed bank’s receiver. The defenses available for these individuals and related considerations (including indemnification and insurance) are discussed in a brief, useful (date) memo from the Dechert law firm, entitled “Bank D&O Defense Manual” (here). The memo provides background on the FDIC’s approach to director and officer liability, the well as on the legal theories on which the FDIC will proceed and the defenses available to the directors and officers.


Speakers’ Corner: On October 5 and 6, 2011, I will be in Cologne, Germany participating in C5’s Sixth European Forum on D&O Liability Insurance. I will be participating in a panel on the first day discussing the evolution of class actions in the U.S. and Europe. Joining me on the panel will be Rick Bortnick of the Cozen O’Connor law firm; Guillaume Deschamps of Marsh, S.A. (France) and Prof. Dr. Roderich Thümmel of the Thümmel Schültze law firm.  Background regarding the event, including the complete agenda and registration information, can be found here.


If you will be attending the conference, I hope you will take time to greet me, particularly if we have not previously met.