In 2018, a Harvard law professor submitted (on behalf of a related trust/shareholder) a shareholder proposal to Johnson & Johnson requesting that the board adopt a mandatory arbitration bylaw. After receiving a no-action letter from Corp Fin, J&J excluded the proposal, and the professor then sued J&J. A decision has just been rendered dismissing the complaint. But that’s not necessarily the end of the shareholder’s proposal to J&J for mandatory arbitration.
On Monday, in a keynote address before the Society for Corporate Governance 2021 National Conference, SEC Commissioner Allison Herren Lee discussed the challenges boards face in oversight of ESG matters, including “climate change, racial injustice, economic inequality, and numerous other issues that are fundamental to the success and sustainability of companies, financial markets, and our economy.” Shareholders, employees, customers and other stakeholders are now all looking to corporations to adopt policies that “support growth and address the environmental and social impacts these companies have.” Why is that? Because actions or inactions by our largest corporations can have a tremendous impact. According to Lee, a 2018 study showed that, of the top 100 revenue generators across the globe, only 29 were countries—the rest were corporations, that is, corporations “often operate on a level or higher economic footing than some of the largest governments in the world.”
Last week, in a bipartisan move, Senators Chris Van Hollen and Deb Fischer reintroduced the “Promoting Transparent Standards for Corporate Insiders Act.” According to the press release, the legislation is designed to address concerns that some insiders “may be abusing loopholes in this system, which hurts everyday investors and reduces confidence in the integrity of our capital markets.” The bill would require the SEC to conduct a study to determine whether Rule 10b5-1 should be amended, report back to Congress within 180 days and amend Rule 10b5-1 within a year consistent with the study’s findings.
In a recent speech, SEC Chair Gary Gensler conveyed a sense of full steam ahead with regard to mandatory disclosure requirements about climate and human capital. (See this PubCo post.) The day before, Commissioner Elad Roisman also addressed potential ESG disclosure requirements, but from quite a different perspective—concern. While he understands that there is a demand for consistent standardized ESG disclosure, especially about climate, is it premature to attempt to standardize, he wonders? To what extent does the SEC have a legislative mandate to construct ESG disclosure rules? And how is the SEC—a bunch of lawyers and accountants and economists—ever going to craft and oversee ESG regulation effectively? When you get down to it, his question is this: Is the SEC the right agency for rulemaking about ESG (particularly climate) disclosure?
In Meland v. Padilla, a shareholder of a publicly traded company filed suit in federal district court seeking a declaratory judgment that SB 826, California’s board gender diversity statute, was unconstitutional under the equal protection provisions of the 14th Amendment. In April 2020, a federal judge dismissed that legal challenge on the basis of lack of standing. On Monday, a three-judge panel of the 9th Circuit reversed that decision, allowing the case, now called Meland v. Weber, to go forward. The Court held that, because the plaintiff “plausibly alleged that SB 826 requires or encourages him to discriminate on the basis of sex, he has adequately alleged that he has standing to challenge SB 826’s constitutionality.”
The January 6 attack on the Capitol and the subsequent efforts to rewrite voting and vote-counting laws led many companies and CEOs to speak out, sign public statements and pause or discontinue some or all of their political donations. However, as companies and executives increasingly take positions and express views on important social issues such as voting and democracy, climate change and racial injustice, there are many who want to hold them to it. As an MIT Sloan lecturer suggested in this article in the NYT, a signed statement from a CEO expressing commitment to an issue “gives people who want to hold corporations accountable an I.O.U.” One way the public has tried to call companies to account is to examine any dissonance or contradiction between those public statements and the company’s political contributions—to the extent those contributions are publicly available. A piece published recently in the NYT’s DealBook, On Voting Rights, It Can Cost Companies to Take Both Sides, explores how that concept has played out dramatically this year, particularly as investors have sought accountability by submitting more shareholder proposals than ever seeking political spending and lobbying disclosure—and actually winning. As the executive director of the Black Economic Alliance contended in the article, “[b]eyond C.E.O. statements[,] businesses demonstrate their values by how they allocate their resources.” And investors are increasingly compelling companies to disclose their allocation of resources on political spending.
Once again, a “control failure” is a lever used by SEC Enforcement to bring charges against a company, this time for failure to timely disclose a cybersecurity vulnerability. Yesterday, the SEC announced settled charges against a real estate settlement services company, First American Financial Corporation, for violation of the requirement to maintain adequate disclosure controls and procedures “related to a cybersecurity vulnerability that exposed sensitive customer information.” This action follows charges regarding control violations against GE (see this PubCo post), HP, Inc. (see this PubCo post) and Andeavor (see this PubCo post) where, instead of attempting to make a case about funny accounting or, in Andeavor, a defective 10b5-1 plan, the SEC opted to make its point by, among other things, charging failure to maintain and comply with internal accounting controls or disclosure controls and procedures. Companies may want to take note that charges related to violations of the rules regarding internal controls and disclosure controls seem to be increasingly part of the SEC’s Enforcement playbook, making it worthwhile for companies to make sure that their controls are in good working order. Perhaps we should pirate the Matt Levine mantra, “everything is securities fraud” (see this PubCo post): how ’bout “everything is also a control failure”?
Late Friday, the SEC announced that its Spring 2021 Regulatory Flexibility Agenda—both short-term and long-term—has now been posted. And it’s a doozy. According to SEC Chair Gary Gensler, to meet the SEC’s “mission of protecting investors, maintaining fair, orderly, and efficient markets, and facilitating capital formation, the SEC has a lot of regulatory work ahead of us.” That’s certainly an understatement. While former SEC Chair Jay Clayton considered the short-term agenda to signify rulemakings that the SEC actually planned to pursue in the following 12 months, Gensler may be operating under a different clock. What stands out here are plans for disclosure on climate and human capital (including diversity), cybersecurity risk disclosure, Rule 10b5-1, universal proxy and SPACs. In addition, with a new sheriff in town, some of the SEC’s more recent controversial rulemakings of the last year or so may be revisited, such as Rule 14a-8. The agenda also identifies a few topics that are still just at the pre-rule stage—i.e., just a twinkle in someone’s eye—such as gamification (behavioral prompts, predictive analytics and differential marketing) and exempt offerings (updating the financial thresholds in the accredited investor definition and amendments to the integration framework). Notably, political spending disclosure is not expressly identified on the agenda, nor is there a reference to a comprehensive ESG disclosure framework (see this PubCo post). Below is a selection from the agenda.
How often does this happen? SEC Commissioners Allison Lee (D) and Elad Roisman (R) on the same page? Ok, well, maybe they’re just on the same fragment of a sentence, but still…. Bloomberg is reporting that, at the WSJ’s CFO Network Summit, Lee expressed her view that companies’ compliance with any new SEC disclosure requirements on ESG should not be subject to “gotcha” enforcement, instead indicating that companies will be cut plenty of slack in experimenting with any new ESG rules that the SEC may adopt. She also offered several suggestions that, interestingly, were quite consistent with suggestions made last week by Roisman to mitigate the cost of compliance.
Audit firm Deloitte and the Alliance for Board Diversity have just released the Missing Pieces Report: The Board Diversity Census of Women and Minorities on Fortune 500 Boards, a study examining the representation of women and racial/ethnic minorities (including Black, Asian/Pacific Islander and Hispanic persons) on public company boards among the Fortune 100 and Fortune 500 companies. The analysis of the Fortune 100 began in 2004 and the Fortune 500 in 2010, based on public filings reviewed through the end of June 2020. The Report finds that the rate of change has been quite slow, espcially for some demographic groups. It remains to be seen whether the social unrest roiling the U.S. body politic—which has brought systemic racial inequity and injustice, exacerbated by the pandemic, into sharp focus—together with actions to mandate or encourage board diversity, such as California’s AB 979 or, if approved, the Nasdaq board diversity proposal, will accelerate the rate of change evidenced in the Report.