Should Directors Trust the CEO to be Their D&O Insurance Coverage Provider?
Updated: May 1
One thing I tell people who are considering joining a board is to ask for and review a summary of the D&O liability insurance policy. After all, legal liability is arguably the biggest risk you are taking when you sign up to be a director of a public company. (Think class action and shareholder derivative suits.) Of course, actually being held liable rarely happens because it's incredibly difficult to be found liable under state law for your actions as a corporate director. Still, that doesn't protect you from getting sued and having to lawyer up until the company agrees to a settlement with the plaintiffs. So, you'll want to know the insurance is there and that the company will cover your legal bills in advance rather than leaving it up to you to front the costs of your defense attorneys and then ask for reimbursement on the back end.
As reported by CNBC reporter Lora Kolodny, the management of Tesla Motors determined that the premium for the D&O insurance policy has become too expensive and thus decided not to renew it for this year. Instead, Tesla CEO Elon Musk has generously promised to cover any legal costs incurred by the directors that would otherwise be paid by the insurance company in the event the directors get sued for breach of fiduciary duties.
That's a jaw-dropper, not just an eyebrow-raiser, for me. Personally, I don't think I'd ever join or stay on a board of a company that treated their outside directors like this. I'd want to be covered by a third-party insurer, not the founder who is the CEO and also owns over 20% of the company. This type of arrangement changes the dynamic of the relationship between the board and the #1 person they are there to advise and monitor. What if the board ends up having to fire the CEO, and the CEO turns around and sues the directors for breach of their fiduciary duties? Even if the CEO is contractually bound to cover the legal costs and potential liability, what if s/he claims s/he's broke and files for bankruptcy? What if the CEO flees the country in a stage equipment box to a jurisdiction with no extradition treaty with the United States? Or another takes off in a SpaceX rocket ship to live on another planet? As we know, crazy things like this can and actually do happen.
Less crazy are instances where the company and its D&O insurance provider get into a dispute about what the policy covers. (Remember the last time you filed a claim with your home or auto insurance provider.) If the CEO is effectively stepping into the shoes of the D&O insurance provider, there may be a higher likelihood of a coverage dispute arising. What do the terms of coverage look like? What are the exclusions listed in the fine print? Not all D&O insurance policies are exactly the same. And are we talking Side A and Side B coverage, or just Side B?
Under the CEO "just trust me on this" arrangement, you as a director, in effect, become dependent on the CEO's ability (and willingness) to cover the liability and associated legal expenses for your job of overseeing his performance (and behavior). That's why the disclosure about this alternative arrangement shows up in the sections of the company's SEC disclosures on related party transactions and director independence (as will be shown below).
Management's decision to treat their directors like this calls into question how it views the role of the board. Both the board and investors should see this as a red flag.
While I have some experience looking at these issues, I'm definitely not an expert in D&O insurance, so I'm not going to try to impersonate one. (If you want a real expert's analysis, check out Kevin LaCroix's post about this on his "D&O Diary" blog.) Instead, I've copied and pasted below what I think are the relevant disclosures you should look at to get a full picture of what this move from a third-party insurance policy to a coverage-by-CEO arrangement means. The language of the 10-K doesn't tell the whole story because it really starts with the indemnification provisions of the corporate formation documents. The law on indemnification, limitation on liability, and advancement are not uniform across the 50 states. So, this alternative coverage arrangement may be just as strong as a third-party insurance policy... or not. I've highlighted certain portions of these disclosures that I think are more important.
ITEM 13. CERTAIN RELATIONSHIPS AND RELATED TRANSACTIONS AND DIRECTOR INDEPENDENCE
Related Party Transactions — Other Transactions
In the ordinary course of business, we enter into offer letters with our executive officers. We have also entered into indemnification agreements with each of our directors and officers. The indemnification agreements and our certificate of incorporation and bylaws require us to indemnify our directors and officers to the fullest extent permitted by Delaware law. In 2019, Tesla entered into a one-year agreement with Elon Musk relating to the indemnification of directors and officers, as described in “Director Independence” under this Item 13 below.
Our Board of Directors periodically assesses, with the recommendation of the Nominating and Corporate Governance Committee, the independence of its non-employee members as defined in the listing standards of NASDAQ and applicable laws. As part of such review in 2020, the Board undertook an analysis for each non-employee director and considered all relevant facts and circumstances, including the director’s other commercial, accounting, legal, banking, consulting, charitable and familial relationships. The Board determined that with respect to each of its current members other than Elon Musk, who is our Chief Executive Officer, and Kimbal Musk, who is Elon Musk’s brother, there are no disqualifying factors with respect to director independence enumerated in the listing standards of NASDAQ or any relationships that would interfere with the exercise of independent judgment in carrying out the responsibilities of a director, and that each such member is an “independent director” as defined in the listing standards of NASDAQ and applicable laws.
In particular, the Board reviewed the following considerations:
... Tesla determined not to renew its directors and officers liability insurance policy for the 2019-2020 year due to disproportionately high premiums quoted by insurance companies. Instead, Elon Musk agreed with Tesla to personally provide coverage substantially equivalent to such a policy for a one-year period, and the other members of the Board are third-party beneficiaries thereof. The Board concluded that because such arrangement is governed by a binding agreement with Tesla as to which Mr. Musk does not have unilateral discretion to perform, and is intended to replace an ordinary course insurance policy, it would not impair the independent judgment of the other members of the Board.
ITEM 15. EXHIBITS AND FINANCIAL STATEMENT SCHEDULES
Exhibit Number 10.15 Form of Indemnification Agreement
[NOTE: This appears to be the agreement between the company and an outside director for the company to indemnify and advance expenses to protect against the director's personal liability. This is not the actual agreement between Elon Musk and Tesla referred to in Item 13 (excerpted above) for Musk to personally cover what would otherwise be covered by a D&O insurance policy. That agreement is not listed as an exhibit to the 10-K, so I don't know where to find a copy of that agreement.]
7. Liability Insurance.
(a) The Company hereby covenants and agrees that, so long as the Indemnitee shall continue to serve as an agent of the Company and thereafter so long as the Indemnitee shall be subject to any possible proceeding by reason of the fact that the Indemnitee was an agent of the Company, the Company, subject to Section 7(b), shall use reasonable efforts to obtain and maintain in full force and effect directors’ and officers’ liability insurance (“DO Insurance”) in reasonable amounts from established and reputable insurers and Indemnitee shall be a covered party under such insurance to the maximum extent of the coverage available for any director or officer of the Company.
(b) Notwithstanding the foregoing, the Company shall have no obligation to obtain or maintain DO Insurance if the Company determines in good faith that such insurance is not reasonably available, the premium costs for such insurance are disproportionate to the amount of coverage provided, or the coverage is reduced by exclusions so as to provide an insufficient benefit.
* * * * *
8.1 Limitation of Personal Liability. To the fullest extent permitted by the [Delaware General Corporation Law ("DGCL")], as it presently exists or may hereafter be amended from time to time, a director of the corporation shall not be personally liable to the corporation or its stockholders for monetary damages for breach of fiduciary duty as a director. If the DGCL is amended to authorize corporate action further eliminating or limiting the personal liability of directors, then the liability of a director of the corporation shall be eliminated or limited to the fullest extent permitted by the DGCL, as so amended. Any repeal or amendment of this Section 8.1 by the stockholders of the corporation or by changes in law, or the adoption of any other provision of this Certificate of Incorporation inconsistent with this Section 8.1 will, unless otherwise required by law, be prospective only (except to the extent such amendment or change in law permits the corporation to further limit or eliminate the liability of directors) and shall not adversely affect any right or protection of a director of the corporation existing at the time of such repeal or amendment or adoption of such inconsistent provision with respect to acts or omissions occurring prior to such repeal or amendment or adoption of such inconsistent provision.
8.2 Indemnification. To the fullest extent permitted by the DGCL, as it presently exists or may hereafter be amended from time to time, the corporation is also authorized to provide indemnification of (and advancement of expenses to) its directors, officers and agents of the corporation (and any other persons to which the DGCL permits the corporation to provide indemnification) through bylaw provisions, agreements with such agents or other persons, vote of stockholders or disinterested directors or otherwise.
* * * * *
ARTICLE VIII — INDEMNIFICATION
8.1 INDEMNIFICATION OF DIRECTORS AND OFFICERS IN THIRD PARTY PROCEEDINGS
Subject to the other provisions of this Article VIII, the corporation shall indemnify, to the fullest extent permitted by the DGCL, as now or hereinafter in effect, any person who was or is a party or is threatened to be made a party to any threatened, pending or completed action, suit or proceeding, whether civil, criminal, administrative or investigative (a “Proceeding”) (other than an action by or in the right of the corporation) by reason of the fact that such person is or was a director of the corporation or an officer of the corporation, or while a director of the corporation or officer of the corporation is or was serving at the request of the corporation as a director, officer, employee or agent of another corporation, partnership, joint venture, trust or other enterprise, against expenses (including attorneys’ fees), judgments, fines and amounts paid in settlement actually and reasonably incurred by such person in connection with such Proceeding if such person acted in good faith and in a manner such person reasonably believed to be in or not opposed to the best interests of the corporation, and, with respect to any criminal action or proceeding, had no reasonable cause to believe such person’s conduct was unlawful. The termination of any Proceeding by judgment, order, settlement, conviction, or upon a plea of nolo contendere or its equivalent, shall not, of itself, create a presumption that the person did not act in good faith and in a manner which such person reasonably believed to be in or not opposed to the best interests of the corporation, and, with respect to any criminal action or proceeding, had reasonable cause to believe that such person’s conduct was unlawful.
8.2 INDEMNIFICATION OF DIRECTORS AND OFFICERS IN ACTIONS BY OR IN THE RIGHT OF THE CORPORATION
Subject to the other provisions of this Article VIII, the corporation shall indemnify, to the fullest extent permitted by the DGCL, as now or hereinafter in effect, any person who was or is a party or is threatened to be made a party to any threatened, pending or completed action or suit by or in the right of the corporation to procure a judgment in its favor by reason of the fact that such person is or was a director or officer of the corporation, or while a director or officer of the corporation is or was serving at the request of the corporation as a director, officer, employee or agent of another corporation, partnership, joint venture, trust or other enterprise against expenses (including attorneys’ fees) actually and reasonably incurred by such person in connection with the defense or settlement of such action or suit if such person acted in good faith and in a manner such person reasonably believed to be in or not opposed to the best interests of the corporation; except that no indemnification shall be made in respect of any claim, issue or matter as to which such person shall have been adjudged to be liable to the corporation unless and only to the extent that the Court of Chancery or the court in which such action or suit was brought shall determine upon application that, despite the adjudication of liability but in view of all the circumstances of the case, such person is fairly and reasonably entitled to indemnity for such expenses which the Court of Chancery or such other court shall deem proper.
8.3 SUCCESSFUL DEFENSE
To the extent that a present or former director or officer of the corporation has been successful on the merits or otherwise in defense of any action, suit or proceeding described in Section 8.1 or Section 8.2, or in defense of any claim, issue or matter therein, such person shall be indemnified against expenses (including attorneys’ fees) actually and reasonably incurred by such person in connection therewith.
8.5 ADVANCED PAYMENT OF EXPENSES
Expenses (including attorneys’ fees) incurred by an officer or director of the corporation in defending any Proceeding shall be paid by the corporation in advance of the final disposition of such Proceeding upon receipt of a written request therefor (together with documentation reasonably evidencing such expenses) and an undertaking by or on behalf of the person to repay such amounts if it shall ultimately be determined that the person is not entitled to be indemnified under this Article VIII or the DGCL. Such expenses (including attorneys’ fees) incurred by former directors and officers or other employees and agents may be so paid upon such terms and conditions, if any, as the corporation deems reasonably appropriate and shall be subject to the corporation’s expense guidelines. The right to advancement of expenses shall not apply to any claim for which indemnity is excluded pursuant to these bylaws, but shall apply to any Proceeding referenced in Section 8.6(ii) or 8.6(iii) prior to a determination that the person is not entitled to be indemnified by the corporation.
8.6 LIMITATION ON INDEMNIFICATION
Subject to the requirements in Section 8.3 and the DGCL, the corporation shall not be obligated to indemnify any person pursuant to this Article VIII in connection with any Proceeding (or any part of any Proceeding):
(i) for which payment has actually been made to or on behalf of such person under any statute, insurance policy, indemnity provision, vote or otherwise, except with respect to any excess beyond the amount paid;
(ii) for an accounting or disgorgement of profits pursuant to Section 16(b) of the 1934 Act, or similar provisions of federal, state or local statutory law or common law, if such person is held liable therefor (including pursuant to any settlement arrangements);
(iii) for any reimbursement of the corporation by such person of any bonus or other incentive-based or equity-based compensation or of any profits realized by such person from the sale of securities of the corporation, as required in each case under the 1934 Act (including any such reimbursements that arise from an accounting restatement of the corporation pursuant to Section 304 of the Sarbanes-Oxley Act of 2002 (the “Sarbanes-Oxley Act”), or the payment to the corporation of profits arising from the purchase and sale by such person of securities in violation of Section 306 of the Sarbanes-Oxley Act), if such person is held liable therefor (including pursuant to any settlement arrangements);
(iv) initiated by such person against the corporation or its directors, officers, employees, agents or other indemnitees, unless (a) the board of directors authorized the Proceeding (or the relevant part of the Proceeding) prior to its initiation, (b) the corporation provides the indemnification, in its sole discretion, pursuant to the powers vested in the corporation under applicable law, (c) otherwise required to be made under Section 8.7 or (d) otherwise required by applicable law; or
(v) if prohibited by applicable law; provided, however, that if any provision or provisions of this Article VIII shall be held to be invalid, illegal or unenforceable for any reason whatsoever: (1) the validity, legality and enforceability of the remaining provisions of this Article VIII (including, without limitation, each portion of any paragraph or clause containing any such provision held to be invalid, illegal or unenforceable, that is not itself held to be invalid, illegal or unenforceable) shall not in any way be affected or impaired thereby; and (2) to the fullest extent possible, the provisions of this Article VIII (including, without limitation, each such portion of any paragraph or clause containing any such provision held to be invalid, illegal or unenforceable) shall be construed so as to give effect to the intent manifested by the provision held invalid, illegal or unenforcebable.
8.7 DETERMINATION; CLAIM
If a claim for indemnification or advancement of expenses under this Article VIII is not paid in full within 90 days after receipt by the corporation of the written request therefor, the claimant shall be entitled to an adjudication by a court of competent jurisdiction of his or her entitlement to such indemnification or advancement of expenses. The corporation shall indemnify such person against any and all expenses that are incurred by such person in connection with any action for indemnification or advancement of expenses from the corporation under this Article VIII, to the extent such person is successful in such action, and to the extent not prohibited by law. In any such suit, the corporation shall, to the fullest extent not prohibited by law, have the burden of proving that the claimant is not entitled to the requested indemnification or advancement of expenses.
8.8 NON-EXCLUSIVITY OF RIGHTS
The indemnification and advancement of expenses provided by, or granted pursuant to, this Article VIII shall not be deemed exclusive of any other rights to which those seeking indemnification or advancement of expenses may be entitled under the certificate of incorporation or any statute, bylaw, agreement, vote of stockholders or disinterested directors or otherwise, both as to action in such person’s official capacity and as to action in another capacity while holding such office. The corporation is specifically authorized to enter into individual contracts with any or all of its directors, officers, employees or agents respecting indemnification and advancement of expenses, to the fullest extent not prohibited by the DGCL or other applicable law.
The corporation may purchase and maintain insurance on behalf of any person who is or was a director, officer, employee or agent of the corporation, or is or was serving at the request of the corporation as a director, officer, employee or agent of another corporation, partnership, joint venture, trust or other enterprise against any liability asserted against such person and incurred by such person in any such capacity, or arising out of such person’s status as such, whether or not the corporation would have the power to indemnify such person against such liability under the provisions of the DGCL.
The rights to indemnification and advancement of expenses conferred by this Article VIII shall continue as to a person who has ceased to be a director, officer, employee or agent and shall inure to the benefit of the heirs, executors and administrators of such a person.
8.11 EFFECT OF REPEAL OR MODIFICATION
Any amendment, alteration or repeal of this Article VIII shall not adversely affect any right or protection hereunder of any person in respect of any act or omission occurring prior to such amendment, alteration or repeal.
8.12 CERTAIN DEFINITIONS
For purposes of this Article VIII, references to the “corporation” shall include, in addition to the resulting corporation, any constituent corporation (including any constituent of a constituent) absorbed in a consolidation or merger which, if its separate existence had continued, would have had power and authority to indemnify its directors, officers, employees or agents, so that any person who is or was a director, officer, employee or agent of such constituent corporation, or is or was serving at the request of such constituent corporation as a director, officer, employee or agent of another corporation, partnership, joint venture, trust or other enterprise, shall stand in the same position under the provisions of this Article VIII with respect to the resulting or surviving corporation as such person would have with respect to such constituent corporation if its separate existence had continued. For purposes of this Article VIII, references to “other enterprises” shall include employee benefit plans; references to “fines” shall include any excise taxes assessed on a person with respect to an employee benefit plan; and references to “serving at the request of the corporation” shall include any service as a director, officer, employee or agent of the corporation which imposes duties on, or involves services by, such director, officer, employee or agent with respect to an employee benefit plan, its participants or beneficiaries; and a person who acted in good faith and in a manner such person reasonably believed to be in the interest of the participants and beneficiaries of an employee benefit plan shall be deemed to have acted in a manner “not opposed to the best interests of the corporation” as referred to in this Article VIII.