2016’s Worst U.S. ‘Judicial Hellholes’

This year’s Judicial Hellholes report, published by the American Tort Reform Association, identifies nine “hellholes” in light of changes in the U.S. state court system, the types of cases being seen and the courts’ balance between defendants and plaintiffs.

The top nine judicial hellholes are:
j-hellholesAnd if that isn’t enough, the report also includes a “Watch List,” calling attention to eight additional jurisdictions “that bear watching due to their histories of abusive litigation or troubling developments.” Those are:
jh-watchlistBut the news isn’t all bad. The report examines “Points of Light,” which are examples of “fair and balanced judicial decisions that adhere to the rule of law and respect the policy-making authority of the legislative and executive branches.” Highlights include positive court rulings from 11 states.

These courts made it easier to dismiss groundless claims, tougher to bring junk science into court, gave juries a more accurate understanding of how injuries occurred in auto accident cases, and reduced the potential for inflated damage awards. Courts also confirmed that a state attorney general can dismiss meritless cases brought on behalf of the state, but can’t hand the state’s law enforcement power to private contingency fee lawyers.

The report also points out that there are a staggering number of new laws on the books for companies to keep track of. In fact, since 2010, there was an average of 827 new laws annually in California alone.

From 2010 through 2015, lawmakers in Sacramento managed to tack onto the books an annual average of more than 800 new laws. In 2016, they added another 893, at least some of which (see SB 859, SB 1063, SB 1130, SB 1150 and SB 1241) were designed primarily to foment still more litigation and related costs that for many years have helped drive businesses, along with their jobs and tax revenues, into the arms of less litigious states across the country and around the globe.
new-laws

Wells Fargo: What Should Have Happened

wells-fargo

When Wells Fargo fired 5,300 employees in September for inappropriate sales practices, then-CEO John Stumpf approached the scandal with an outdated playbook. In response to the $185 million in fines levied by regulators, he first denied any knowledge of the illegitimate accounts. Attempting to mitigate press fallout by distancing the company from a group of “bad eggs” acting independently is not the answer, however. Even if Stumpf had maintained this assertion of innocence, changes in the risk environment over the past few years demand a proactive approach.

Rather than simply deflecting responsibility in these situations, executives must be able to accomplish two things:

• Provide historical evidence of due diligence and risk management (if such a program was actually used)
• Demonstrate how the company is adjusting its policies and/or implementing new policies to ensure a similar incident doesn’t happen in the future

In 2010, the SEC’s Proxy Disclosure Enhancement (rule 33-9089) explicitly made boards of directors responsible for assessing and disclosing risk management effectiveness to shareholders. It mandates the use of risk monitoring systems to demonstrate that existing controls (mitigation activities) are effective. Under this rule, “not knowing” about an activity performed by employees is considered negligence. This is a crucial development; negligence carries the same penalty as fraud, but it does not require proof of intent. The Yates Memo (2015) gave the SEC ruling more “teeth” by requiring organizations to provide the Department of Justice with all the facts related to responsible individuals.

As a result, many companies have suffered significant penalties and frequently criminal charges, even though their executives were allegedly unaware of illicit activities. Consider the emissions scandal at Volkswagen and fines paid (to the SEC) by global health science company Nordion Inc. In both instances, deceptions were perpetrated by individuals below the executive level, but senior management’s inability to detect/prevent the incidents came back to bite them.

How to Prevent Risk Management Failures at Your Organization

John Stumpf’s approach should have started with an admission of Wells Fargo’s failure in risk management processes across the enterprise, followed by evidence that a more effective, formal enterprise risk management process is being implemented. For example, risk assessments must cascade from senior management down to the front lines and across all business silos. This ensures that the personnel most familiar with operational risks (and how to mitigate them) can keep the board informed.

In other words, instead of simply apologizing and attempting to provide restitution, Stumpf should have demonstrated that Wells Fargo is taking proactive risk management measures to protect its many stakeholders. It is the company’s duty to ensure that something like this never happens again.

The scandal is predictably following the same track as have previous failures in risk management: it starts with regulatory penalties, then leads to punitive damages, class action lawsuits, and finally, criminal charges and individual liability, depending on the particular case. The key to this pattern is the absence of adequate risk management, which means negligence under the new enterprise risk management laws, regulations and mandates passed since 2010.

The good news is that avoiding serious, long-term consequences is possible if proper actions are taken. For example, by providing a historical record of risk management practices, Morgan Stanley avoided regulatory penalties when an employee evaded existing internal controls. Other corporations that can provide evidence of an effective risk management program (risk assessments, internal controls that address risks, monitoring activities over these internal controls, and an electronic due-diligence trail) are largely exempt from punitive damages, class-action lawsuits, and possible jail time.

When implemented proactively, effective risk management systems have and will continue to prevent scandals, regulatory fines, litigation and imprisonment. For a more in-depth analysis of the Wells Fargo scandal, read the LogicManager blog post “The Walls Fargo Scandal is a Failure in Risk Management.”

Top Board and C-Suite Risks for 2016

Regulatory changes, economic conditions and cyberthreats are the top concerns of board members and company executives this year, according to a new enterprise risk management survey. U.S.-based companies listed several operational risks as top concerns, while non-U.S. companies listed only one, cyberthreat, as a major concern, according to the report, Executive Perspectives on Top Risks for 2016, by North Carolina State’s ERM Initiative and Protiviti.

Overall, companies see the current business environment as riskier than in 2015, but not as risky as 2014. With increased inquiries and added concerns about risk from boards of directors and company executives, respondents indicated they will be investing more in risk management this year. “More organizations are realizing that additional risk management sophistication is warranted given the fast pace in which complex risks are emerging,” the study found.

Boards of directors rated only one strategic risk among their top five concerns, with the remaining falling into macroeconomic and operational risk categories. CEOs, on the other hand, saw strategic risks as three out of their top five issues.
According to the study:

“This disparity in the viewpoints emphasizes the critical importance of both the board and management team engaging in risk discussions, given their unique perspectives may be contributing to an apparent lack of consensus about the organization’s most significant emerging risks.”

ERM Risks

Legal Woes Highlight Dangers of the Food Industry Supply Chain

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A spate of recent cases offers a clear warning for the food industry about the legal and reputational perils of not getting more serious about supply chain control.

On Monday, the U.S. Supreme Court declined to consider an appeal from Nestle, Archer Daniel Midlands Co. and Cargill Inc., allowing a slave and child labor lawsuit to proceed against the three food industry giants.

Three plaintiffs who claim they were trafficked from Mali as child slaves and forced to work harvesting and cultivating beans in Cote d’Ivoire, and allege that the companies aided, abetted or failed to prevent the torture, forced labor and arbitrary detention they suffered.

According to Reuters:

The plaintiffs, who were originally from Mali, contend the companies aided and abetted human rights violations through their active involvement in purchasing cocoa from Ivory Coast. While aware of the child slavery problem, the companies offered financial and technical assistance to local farmers in a bid to guarantee the cheapest source of cocoa, the plaintiffs said.

The defendants knew about the child slavery problems in the region and offered both financial and technical farming assistance to support the agriculture methods in place, the plaintiffs claim. What’s more, they say, the defendants could have used their leverage in the cocoa market to stop or limit the alleged child labor practices and failed to do so.

According to the Wall Street Journal:

Mark Theodore, a partner at Proskauer Rose, said that the ruling reinforces to companies that they need to be socially responsible employers. And while there is no way to ever completely prevent such risks, he said the ruling is a reminder to companies that they “should be monitoring and also maybe doing a little bit of introspective thinking about their own practices to avoid these things, or prevent them from happening, or to put themselves in legally defensible position if they can’t prevent them.”

In September, the Justice Department finalized a landmark conviction of the former head of the Peanut Corporation of America, who was sentenced to 28 years in prison for knowingly shipping salmonella-tainted products that sickened 714 people and killed nine. That may be the department’s first step in a new approach to taking food industry product safety more seriously, and more aggressively pursuing wrongdoing on a criminal level. The Justice Department has now opened formal investigations into the e. coli outbreak at Chipotle and the listeria outbreak at Blue Bell Creameries, both of which sickened hundreds of consumers.

The department has already signaled a broad intention to focus more efforts on individual law-breakers in corporate crimes. Now, the government appears to be showing the food industry that things are changing in terms of corporate responsibility and food safety, according to Andrew Lankler, partner at Baker Botts. Lankler told the Wall Street Journal that the Department of Justice is signaling that whatever standard the food industry thought it needed to meet for food safety, the bar is higher. “The department is going to step up enforcement in areas where they can prove they sold tainted product,” he said.

And the trouble at Chipotle shows little sign of abating. The CDC is still investigating multiple outbreaks, and the chain has now been served a subpoena as part of a criminal probe by the U.S. Attorney’s Office and the Food and Drug Administration’s Office of Criminal Investigations regarding an isolated norovirus incident in August.

A fourth lawsuit was recently filed by a customer who claims he was sickened by the same strain of e. coli linked to Chipotle, but this case dates back to July, meaning far more people may have been affected in the outbreaks. At least nine suits have been filed by customers, and Bill Marler, a food and safety litigator in Seattle, claims more are coming from the 75 Chipotle-related clients he represents.

At this week’s ICR conference this week, CEO Steve Ells said he is hopeful that the CDC will soon declare the restaurant’s e. coli outbreak over, adding, “we know that Chipotle is as safe as it’s ever been before.”

To that end, Chipotle announced today that it will close all of its stores on Feb. 8 to have a corporation-wide meeting with all staff regarding food safety.

But customers remain extremely wary. Indeed, while it may be an e. coli cliché, it would not at all be a stretch to say public opinion about the brand remains in the toilet, with YouGov’s BrandIndex score for the company seeing a drop equal to that of GM during its crisis.

yougov poll chipotle

To combat that, the company also announced plans to launch a sizable new marketing campaign to win back customers, using direct mail and traditional advertising to attempt to win back consumer confidence. As Fortune reported, executives said the campaign will attempt to provide a “detailed story of what happened” to explain to customers why they are now safe, and that it will not focus overtly on food safety, but will have “an undertone” of humility.

Chipotle’s stock dropped nearly 42% in the wake of the outbreaks, and according to an SEC filing, sales at stores open more than a year were down 30% last month. Ells and his team admitted they could not guess how much the fallout will impact 2016 financial results, but expect it will be a “messy” year. Costs are expected to go up from the marketing campaign and new food safety measures, including processing more food through centralized kitchens in an attempt to better control the conditions of ingredients.

The company darkened its outlook for Q4 results, and As Wells Fargo Securities wrote in a recent research note, “We expect CMG to point to a hard-fought and long-tailed [same-store sales] recovery across 2016, and to stress that there is still much work to be done in assessing the sizeable costs associated with the company’s supply chain overhaul.”

For more about food safety crises and product recall, check out the following articles from Risk Management:

Feeding an Appetite for Trust, A Q&A with Center for Food Integrity CEO Charlie Arnot

Food Safety Updates Stalled by Funding

Maximizing Coverage for a Product Recall