That’s the conclusion of new scholarship by law professors Dave Hoffman and Cristy Boyd, in a draft just published here on SSRN, with blogging about it here. After analyzing 690 cases that sought to pierce the corporate veil between 2000 and 2005, they conclude:
The part that extra-legal influences play in veil piercing cases should caution corporate lawyers and scholars. Although jurists have focused on the influence of law and lawyers’ craft on the likelihood of defending the veil, we find that two previously ignored factors – ideology, and firm size, play as important a role, if not more so. This finding reminds us that legal rules create only loose constraints on judges, even those in the trial courts. …
We contest the conventional wisdom not just in its specifics but in its general theme that veil piercing doctrine is especially random and freakish. We think that the patterns we have observed fit well with a set of cases influenced by selection. Plaintiffs do win far more often during litigation than popular accounts of the doctrine’s rare nature would have had us expect, but their ultimate chance of obtaining relief on the merits is obscured by settlement, which disposes two of three veil piercing cases filed in federal court. …
Litigation results can tell us nothing more, and nothing less, than the kinds of factors
courts have found important in previous decided cases. Here, two extra-factors appear to be both important and surprising: ideology and firm size. Formalities, plaintiffs’ tactics, and defendants’ legal planning, have modest relationships to observed outcomes. To owners of the smallest of businesses, the message coming from this data is unfortunately both clear and unsatisfying: neither reliance on legal formalities nor pat expectations about the pro-business orientation of conservative judges will protect your firm from the need to dispute its veil in
court. To scholars, the message is also unsettling: to predict how judges will react to veil piercing facts, and to understand their motivations, observation must yield to experiment.
In short, they found that the smaller the company, or the more conservative the judge, the more likely it is that the veil will be pierced and the owners of the company held personally liable.
One might think that smaller company size was positively correlated with veil piercing success because "undercapitalization," which is generally the most effecive veil piercing theory, is closely correlated with company size. (Common sense suggests that, although it’s easy to set up a fly-by-night small business, it’s quite difficult to establish an large corporation, even an "undercapitalized" one.) The above findings, however, control for factors like the type of veil piercing claim (i.e., "undercapitalization" as compared to "alter ego" or the like), which means that company size alone is a significant factor in veil piercing. That suggests something else at work, possibly a systematic bias against smaller companies (or a bias in favor of larger companies).
Frankly, I was surprised to see that "in nearly 78% of litigations, plaintiffs likely realized some value from their veil piercing claims" because the veil piercing claims had either (a) succeeded or (b) had not been dismissed at the time of settlement.
I don’t believe all of those plaintiffs realized some value from it — the mere fact that a claim has not yet been dismissed doesn’t necessarily mean the defendant sees a reasonable chance of it succeeding — but the sheer size of that figure (almost four in five!) is hard to argue with. Veil piercing claims apparently have a lot more traction than most lawyers believe.
Then again, the presumption among most plaintiff’s lawyers that veil piercing is inordinately difficult and rare likely leads to a strong selection bias prior to filing suit, such that only the strongest veil piercing claims are ever brought at all.
I recommend the authors journey down this road:
This relationship also implies that the particular grounds for relief asserted in complaints generally reflect the underlying facts of the case. To some, this result will surprise, as notice pleading rules, together with the expectation that plaintiffs will learn and shape their cases through discovery, might lead scholars to expect that the framing of the complaint functions as mere rhetorical gloss, insignificant in its particulars. Our contrary finding suggests that complaints are themselves objects worthy of further study beyond the confines of this particular project.
In the world of Ashcroft v. Iqbal, complaints are anything but "rhetorical gloss." These days, they’re often the strongest case the plaintiff can put forward.