Even the most conscientious and reasonable directors serve with the possibility of facing a lawsuit in state or federal court. In the decade after Sarbanes-Oxley, board minutes have emerged as an important litigation tool for both the prosecution and the defense. While minutes continue to be essential to internal recordkeeping, they must also be crafted to stand up to judicial scrutiny if needed.
Incomplete or inadequate minutes can serve as the basis for prosecution for obstruction of justice, and some have expressed concerns that minutes may act as road maps for litigants. Minutes that fail to show due diligence in a board’s decision-making process reflect either poor minutes or poor process—both can be detrimental to directors defending themselves from liability. On the other hand, minutes capable of demonstrating the process behind well-informed board decisions, may be key evidence in any board’s defense. Directors should not fear “beefing up” minutes with details from meetings if they are doing their jobs competently.
With few formal rules surrounding the drafting of board minutes, directors may receive conflicting guidance on how to best represent board meetings. The National Association of Corporate Directors, with input from the Society of Corporate Secretaries and Governance Professionals, has put together a white paper outlining five board minute fundamentals. These fundamentals, based on a study of various recommendations, should serve as a framework for directors to review, interpret, and eventually approve the minutes. This white paper gives directors a firsthand look at full board and committee meeting minutes. A complimentary copy of Corporate Board Minutes: A Director’s Guide is available to all members.
Gerard F. Hurley, CAE, is president of Association Executive Resources Group, Gaithersburg, MD. AERG employs a spectrum of board governance guidelines and policy instruments in a “Foundation First Governance” publication series designed to assist nonprofit organizations.
Board minutes, by definition, can loom large after the fact, to which defendant organizations in discovery will attest. Unfortunately, it is all too easy for directors—fiduciaries all—to skip over the board minutes each received weeks or months earlier and, when asked at the next meeting if they “accept the minutes of the last meeting,” to suffer a brain cramp. “Okay, let’s move on,” the chair usually intones.
The precision of one’s board and committee minutes is critical to recording what actually took place, the decisions made, budgets authorized, and who has been charged to do what, when and where. That assumes there was action to report. Minutes are not to intimate otherwise, or gloss over issues considered delicate, leaving unaddressed matters which can haunt for years.
Board Minutes--rarely plain sailing
The “academy,” so to speak, is not exempt. In his book, Known and Unknown, former Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld observed that some (obviously secure) minutes of the National Security Council failed to state what had been decided, or even discussed, leaving participants with differing views on what had been decided and the next steps to take. Such imprecision, though possibly intended for other reasons, seems unconceivable at that assumed level of sophistication. It happens regularly in middle America.
Another NSC practice regarding minutes, according to former Secretary Rumsfeld, was to assume that a matter had been decided, simply because “no objections were voiced.” He insisted that nothing be deemed “decided” unless and until the meeting participants agreed to decide. Was silence simply a matter of “after you, Alphonse,” or was the “minutes technique” an attempt to move an agenda? The “unless we hear from you” practice employed anywhere is wide open for abuse and misunderstanding.
It can be risky to offer too little for the record, as well. I recall the comments of the Hon. William B. Chandler, III, chancellor of the Delaware Court of Chancery, to NACD’s 2004 Corporate Governance Conference, on the Disney Corporation/Michael Ovitz separation decision just rendered. It was his observation that Disney records did not support the level of due diligence it claimed when contemplating the Ovitz separation. Was it three hours, or one hour, or 15 minutes, he shrugged, rhetorically. In his September 10, 2004, decision, on page 21, he said “It is unclear from the record whether a majority of any group of [Disney] disinterested directors ever authorized the payment of Ovitz’s severance payments.”
The quality of the minutes reflects the meeting. The document is to show only the topics discussed and the actions taken, if any. It is not a verbatim record. Was the consensus agenda properly constructed to point toward known objectives so as to focus directors on a needed a decision? Were the discussions crisp and pointed, the decisions clear and repeated for all to take note? Were the draft minutes then reviewed for accuracy by the chair and other principals before distribution?
Are we not to insist on the specificity in our minutes necessary to support the record and defend our decisions. . . and no more than that?