Yesterday, yet another complaint was filed in federal district court charging that California’s board diversity statutes, SB 826 and AB 979, are unconstitutional under the equal protection provisions of the 14th Amendment. This complaint was filed by The National Center for Public Policy Research, which, you may recall, has also filed a petition challenging the Nasdaq board diversity rule (see this PubCo post and this PubCo post). The NCPPR describes itself as “a non-profit 501(c)(3) organization that supports free market solutions to social problems and opposes corporate and shareholder social activism that detracts from the goal of maximizing shareholder returns.” The case is National Center for Public Policy Research v. Weber, and the initial scheduling conference for this case isn’t set to occur until March of next year.
In early January 2015, hedge fund activist Trian launched a closely followed proxy fight against DuPont, claiming that the company had underperformed and that it should, among other things, be broken up into three parts. DuPont responded that, through implementation of its own strategic plan, it had delivered total shareholder return and cumulative capital return in excess of its proxy peers and the S&P 500. Rejecting DuPont’s offer of a single board seat, Trian nominated a short slate of four directors and commenced an election contest. Fast forward to February, when Trian submitted to the DuPont board a request that DuPont allow the use of a “universal proxy,” thus allowing shareholders to vote for their preferred combination of DuPont and Trian nominees using a single proxy card. Trian argued that it would provide shareholders with “maximum freedom of choice” and represent “best-in-class corporate governance.” After consulting “with a range of proxy and governance experts” and evaluating the DuPont shareholder base, DuPont rejected that request, contending that there was “insufficient infrastructure” to support the use of a universal proxy card and that the process could “undermine voting access” for DuPont’s huge contingent of retail shareholders. In particular, DuPont was concerned that “the use of a universal proxy card would limit voting options for our ‘Street-name’ holders, as well as deprive holders of the ability to simply sign and return voting forms without marking a preference.” At the annual meeting, Trian lost its bid, and DuPont’s full slate of nominees was elected. But the DuPont story ultimately ended favorably for Trian, notwithstanding its loss in the proxy contest. After the election contest, Trian reignited its battle to break up the company and, after the company failed to hit targeted earnings, the CEO resigned. DuPont ultimately entered into an agreement to be acquired. A new rulemaking from the SEC to mandate the use of universal proxy, adopted last week by a vote of four to one, would likely have affected the course of that campaign and perhaps its outcome.
Since the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, the number of whistleblower complaints received by regulators has exploded on both sides of the Atlantic. That’s the subject of this new Cooley Alert, Whistleblower Complaints and Rewards Explode Worldwide, from our White Collar Defense and Investigations group.
It’s been weeks since the SEC last took SPACs to task! According to Bloomberg, the SEC is now requiring many SPACs to “Big R” restate their financial statements because they tripped over the classification of certain shares they offered to investors. Auditors with whom Bloomberg spoke said that the latest SPAC accounting snafu relates to incorrect categorization of Class A shares—which are typically redeemable—as “permanent equity instead of temporary equity.” One auditor described the issue as “pervasive[:] everyone’s dealing with it because everyone did it wrong.”
According to audit firm Deloitte, “[i]nformative climate reporting requires a complex transformation of reporting processes, of data collection, education of the finance function, and in many cases, of the audit committee itself. Yet, despite the urgency and magnitude of the task, many boards are hesitating in the face of inconsistent standards, fragmented global standard-setting, and myriad expectations from investors.” Just how prepared are companies, their boards and especially their audit committees to deal with climate risk and climate reporting? That’s the big question that Deloitte asked 353 audit committee members globally (56% of whom were chairs) in September 2021. The answer? Not so much. According to Deloitte’s new report, 42% of respondents indicated that their company’s “climate response is not as swift and robust as they would like” and almost half “do not believe that they are well-equipped to fulfil their climate regulatory responsibilities.” Deloitte called the responses “sobering.”
While the global powers are occupied at the COP26 climate summit with negotiating and pledging (or, is it more “blah, blah, blah,” as teenage activist Greta Thunberg contends in some, uh, straight talk?), and we await the SEC’s expected climate disclosure framework, it might be worthwhile to get a handle on what companies are doing about sustainability reporting in the meantime. To help companies understand the current state of the art, CEO advisory firm Teneo surveyed 200 sustainability reports from S&P 500 companies in eleven industries published in the period between January 1 to June 30, 2021. Teneo’s report, The-State-of-U.S.-Sustainability-Reporting, provides useful samples, market statistics for various aspects of the content and design of these reports, as well as some practical considerations.
Last week, ISS released for public comment its proposed benchmark policy changes for 2022. If adopted, the proposed policy changes would apply to shareholder meetings held on or after February 1, 2022. The proposed changes for U.S. companies relate to board diversity, board accountability for unequal voting rights, board accountability for climate disclosure by high GHG emitters and say-on-climate proposals.
On October 19, a federal district court judge held a hearing on a motion for a preliminary injunction in Meland v. Weber, a case challenging SB 826, California’s board gender diversity statute, on the basis that it is unconstitutional under the equal protection provisions of the 14th Amendment. The judge had previously dismissed the case on the basis of lack of standing, but was reversed by the 9th Circuit. What did the hearing reveal? (This post has been updated to reflect additional information regarding the hearing. See “At the hearing” below.)
On Friday, in remarks before the L.A. County Bar Association, SEC Commissioner Elad Roisman addressed some of the challenges associated with cybersecurity and cyber breaches and similar events. In his presentation, Roisman considers cybersecurity in a variety of contexts, such as the exchanges, investment advisers and broker-dealers, but his discussion of cybersecurity in the context of public companies is of most interest here. Although the SEC has imposed some principles-based requirements and issued guidance about cybersecurity disclosure, Roisman believes that there is more in the way of guidance and even rulemaking that the SEC should consider “to ensure that companies understand [the SEC’s] expectations and investors get the benefit of increased disclosure and protections by companies.”
A new conference and a new public company resource!