Month: February 2023
Workplace misconduct again! SEC charges failure of disclosure controls
Alleged workplace misconduct—and the obligation to collect information and report up about it—rears its head again in yet another case, this time involving Activision Blizzard, Inc. Just last month, in In re McDonald’s Corporation, the former “Chief People Officer” of McDonald’s Corporation was alleged to have breached his fiduciary duty of oversight by consciously ignoring red flags about sexual harassment and misconduct in the workplace. According to the court in that case, the defendant “had an obligation to make a good faith effort to put in place reasonable information systems so that he obtained the information necessary to do his job and report to the CEO and the board, and he could not consciously ignore red flags indicating that the corporation was going to suffer harm.” (See this PubCo post.) Now, the SEC has issued an Order in connection with a settled action alleging that Activision Blizzard, Inc., a videogame developer and publisher, violated the Exchange Act’s disclosure controls rule because it “lacked controls and procedures designed to ensure that information related to employee complaints of workplace misconduct would be communicated to Activision Blizzard’s disclosure personnel to allow for timely assessment on its disclosures.” In addition, the SEC alleged that the company violated the whistleblower protection rules by requiring, in separation agreements, that former employees “notify the company if they received a request from a government administrative agency in connection with a report or complaint.” As a result, Activision Blizzard agreed to pay a $35 million civil penalty. These cases suggest that company actions (or lack thereof) around workplace misconduct and information gathering and reporting about it have resonance far beyond employment law. It’s also noteworthy that this Order represents yet another case (see this PubCo post) where a “control failure” is a lever used by SEC Enforcement to bring charges against a company notwithstanding the absence of any specific allegations of material misrepresentation or misleading disclosure, a point underscored by Commissioner Hester Peirce in her dissenting statement, discussed below.
Is the SEC going to revamp Reg D?
At the Northwestern/Pritzker 50th Annual Securities Regulation Institute in San Diego this week, SEC Commissioner Caroline Crenshaw gave the Alan B. Levenson Keynote Address. Her topic: exempt offerings and the private capital markets. The rapid growth of the private markets in recent decades, Crenshaw observes, has been “hotly debated”; private offerings have increased at a faster rate than public offerings, as companies delay public offerings or eschew them altogether and instead turn to the private markets to raise enormous amounts of capital, essentially through Reg D. According to Crenshaw, “Reg D, among other legal and regulatory mechanisms, has allowed for the development of pools of private capital sufficient to satisfy the needs of even the largest private issuers.” Hence the unicorn! But are these exemptions serving the purpose they were originally intended to provide? Are they providing adequate safeguards for investors? For example, should large private issuers be required to provide more disclosure? Crenshaw has some ideas for, as she characterized it, “modest reforms.”
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