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.
Yesterday, in remarks before the WSJ’s CFO Network Summit, SEC Chair Gary Gensler scooped the Summit with news of plans to address issues he and others have identified in Rule 10b5-1 plans. Problems with 10b5-1 plans have long been recognized—including by former SEC Chair Jay Clayton—so it will be interesting to see if any proposal that emerges will find support among the Commissioners on both sides of the SEC’s aisle. In an interview, Gensler also responded to questions about climate disclosure rules, removal of the PCAOB Chair, Enforcement, SPACs and other matters.
Earlier this week, SEC Commissioner Allison Lee delivered keynote remarks at the 2021 ESG Disclosure Priorities Event hosted by the AICPA, the Chartered Institute of Management Accountants, SASB and the Center for Audit Quality. Her topic: “Myths and Misconceptions about ‘Materiality.’” In the context of the discussion about potential mandatory ESG disclosures, Lee observed, there has been a lot of attention to the concept of materiality, which is fundamental to our securities laws. The public company disclosure system “is generally oriented around providing information that is important to reasonable investors,” and “the viewpoint of the reasonable investor is the lens through which we all are meant to operate.” Since investors are the ones who make the investment choices, “investors are also the ones who decide what information they need to make those choices.” But, in the course of the ongoing discourse about ESG, Lee has found that a number of myths have proliferated about the role and meaning of materiality; her purpose in these remarks is to dissect and dispel those myths, which she believes have hampered the “important debate on how best to craft a rule proposal on climate and ESG risks and opportunities.”
Leadership survey: How prepared are leaders to face key business issues? Do executives think boards give good advice?
While it’s certainly not yet in the rear-view mirror, as we start to see COVID-19 begin to fade as an all-consuming crisis for business—thank you science and scientists!—what are the next issues that corporate leaders must face and how ready are they to face them? Consultant Russell Reynolds Associates has just released its 2021 Global Leadership Monitor, designed to track top business issues and monitor leadership preparedness. Some of the more interesting findings: In terms of “stakeholder capitalism,” while customers are top of the heap, employees come in second as key stakeholders—ahead of stockholders. Most fascinating perhaps is this revelation: 40% of CEOs and other C-Suite executives “don’t believe the executive team receives good advice and input from the board.”
As reported by Bloomberg, Acting Corp Fin Director John Coates told a webinar audience that mandatory ESG disclosures were “overdue,” and that the SEC was moving quickly on related rulemaking. In the webinar, sponsored by NYU’s Institute of Accounting Research and the Institute for Corporate Governance & Finance, Coates said that he expects the SEC to soon be in a position to review and consider staff proposals for mandatory prescriptive rules on ESG addressing both general and industry-specific requirements. These actions are expected to be the SEC’s most significant action on climate since the 2010 guidance. (See this PubCo post.)