Should Law Professors Stop Teaching Dodge v. Ford?

Yes, says UCLA Law professor Lynn Stout in an essay recently posted on SSRN:  Why We Should Stop Teaching Dodge v. Ford.  Stout argues that the principle the case is supposed to stand for:  that of a singular obligation of the board to maximize shareholder wealth has long been dispensed with, and that the 1919 case does not accurately reflect the current state of corporate law.  Stout asserts that Dodge v. Ford remains a popular teaching case due to its simplicity.  Simplicity, says Stout, is not always a virtue especially when it helps perpetuate a misleading conception of the law.

Here is the abstract:

Among non-experts, conventional wisdom holds that corporate law requires boards of directors to maximize shareholder wealth. This common but mistaken belief is almost invariably supported by reference to the Michigan Supreme Court’s 1919 opinion in Dodge v. Ford Motor Co.

This Essay argues that Dodge v. Ford is bad law, at least when cited for the proposition that maximizing shareholder wealth is the proper corporate purpose. As a positive matter, U.S. corporate law does not and never has imposed a legal obligation on directors to maximize shareholder wealth. From a normative perspective, options theory, team production theory, the problem of external costs, and differences in shareholder interests all suggest why a rule of shareholder wealth maximization would be bad policy and lead to inefficient results.

Courts accordingly treat Dodge v. Ford as a dead letter. (In the past three decades the Delaware courts have cited the case only once, and then on controlling shareholders’ duties to minority shareholders). Nevertheless, legal scholars continue to teach and cite it. This Essay suggests that Dodge v. Ford has achieved a privileged position in the legal canon not because it accurately captures the law – it does not – or because it provides good normative guidance – it does not – but because it serves professors’ need for a simple answer to the question, “What do corporations do?” Simplicity is not a virtue when it leads to misunderstanding, however. Law professors should mend their collective ways, and stop teaching Dodge v. Ford as anything more than an example of how courts can go astray.

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