In August last year, the National Center for Public Policy Research filed a complaint against Starbucks and its officers and directors, National Center for Public Policy Research v. Schultz, alleging that they caused Starbucks to adopt a group of policies that discriminate based on race in violation of a “wide array of state and federal civil rights laws.” Starbucks characterized the policies as designed to “realize its ‘commitment to Inclusion, Diversity, and Equity[.]’” Starbucks, its officers and directors moved to dismiss, and a hearing on the motion was held on August 11, 2023. At the hearing, the Federal District Court for the Eastern District of Washington granted the motion to dismiss with prejudice and closed the case. A month on, the Court’s Order has now been released. While the Order discusses the various legal bases for the dismissal, the Court’s sentiment was perhaps best summed up by its statement in the Order that “[t]his Complaint has no business being before this Court and resembles nothing more than a political platform.” Much like the recent decision of the Delaware Chancery Court in Simeone v. The Walt Disney Company, the Court concluded that “[c]ourts of law have no business involving themselves with reasonable and legal decisions made by the board of directors of public corporations.” Are we starting to see a trend with regard to board business decisions about corporate social policy?
Boards and their advisors seeking to navigate the culture wars and their often conflicting pressures from a variety of stakeholders and outside groups may find some comfort and guidance in this recent decision from the Delaware Chancery Court in Simeone v. The Walt Disney Company. The case involved a books-and-records demand from a stockholder asserting a potential breach of fiduciary duty by Disney’s directors and officers in their determination to publicly oppose Florida’s so-called “Don’t Say Gay” bill. Originally, Disney was silent on the bill. However, following reproaches from employees and other creative partners, Disney’s board deliberated at a special meeting, and the company changed course and publicly criticized the bill. The Court declined to grant the plaintiff’s books-and-records request, concluding that the plaintiff had not provided a credible basis from which to infer wrongdoing and thus had not “demonstrated a proper purpose to inspect books and records.” Rather, the Court concluded, the Disney board had made a business decision to reverse course—“a decision that cannot provide a credible basis to suspect potential mismanagement irrespective of its outcome.” Under Delaware’s business judgment rule, directors have “significant discretion to guide corporate strategy—including on social and political issues.” Importantly, the Court confirmed that, in exercising its business judgment, a board may take into account the interests of non-stockholder corporate stakeholders where those interests are “rationally related” to building long-term value.
On Wednesday, SEC Commissioner Mark Uyeda spoke to the Society for Corporate Governance 2023 National Conference on the topic of shareholder proposals under rule 14a-8, a topic on which, historically, the commissioners’ energetic back-and-forth has been reflected in Corp Fin interpretations that have literally shifted back and forth. You might think these reversals are a new thing, but Uyeda reminds us about the goings-on in 2015, when Whole Foods was first permitted to exclude, as a conflicting proposal under Rule 14a-8(i)(9), a proxy access proposal, only to have the staff reverse course shortly thereafter. (See this PubCo post, this PubCo post and this PubCo post.) “Relying on the Commission’s rules, or its staff’s positions,” he later observes, “in this area is akin to building a sand castle on the beach. Any rule or interpretation, no matter how recently adopted, is at risk of being erased by the next wave.” However, Uyeda finds the reversals over the course of the last few years particularly problematic. In his view, the recent interpretative changes in SLB 14L have led to a surfeit of proposals the aggregate effect of which he finds to be “value-eroding.” He suggests some approaches to address the problem. Are we looking at a fundamental—some might say radical— reimagining of the shareholder proposal process?
Here we have another in a string of McDonald’s cases—all of them arising out of workplace misconduct at McDonald’s, none even dipping its toe into employment law. First, you’ll remember, there were settled charges brought by the SEC against McDonald’s and its former CEO, Stephen Easterbrook, arising out of disclosure about the termination of Easterbrook on account of workplace misconduct. Then there was the derivative Caremark litigation for breach of fiduciary duty against David Fairhurst, who formerly served as Executive Vice President and Global Chief People Officer of McDonald’s, for consciously ignoring red flags about workplace misconduct and engaging in some pretty extensive workplace misconduct himself. Now, we have a new decision out of Delaware regarding the derivative Caremark litigation against the company’s directors alleging that they ignored red flags about the company’s culture that condoned workplace misconduct. But this case turned out to be different—VC Laster of the Delaware Chancery Court dismissed the complaint against the directors. The Court held that, in this case, the directors did not ignore the numerous red flags: the facts cited in the pleadings did “not support a reasonably conceivable claim against them for breach of the duty of oversight.” Once again, the case reinforces that high bar described by former Chief Justice Leo Strine for Caremark claims: “Caremark claims are difficult to plead and ultimately to prove out,” and constitute “possibly the most difficult theory in corporation law upon which a plaintiff might hope to win a judgment.” (See this PubCo post.)
If you’re waiting with bated breath to find out what the SEC has in store for public companies in its final version of its climate disclosure regulations (see this PubCo post, this PubCo post and this PubCo post), you might also want to take a look at this California bill—the Climate Corporate Data Accountability Act (SB 253)—previously known as the Climate Corporate Accountability Act when it went belly up last year after sailing through one chamber of the legislature but coming up shy in the second (see this PubCo post). In fact, this year, the press release announces, the bill is part of California’s Climate Accountability Package, a “suite of bills that work together to improve transparency, standardize disclosures, align public investments with climate goals, and raise the bar on corporate action to address the climate crisis. At a time when rising anti-science sentiment is driving strong pushback against responsible business practices like risk disclosure and ESG investing,” the press release continues, “these bills leverage the power of California’s market to continue the state’s long tradition of setting the gold standard on environmental protection for the nation and the world.” If signed into law this time, the bill, which was introduced at the end of January and has a hearing scheduled in March, would mandate disclosure of GHG emissions data—Scopes 1, 2 and 3—by all U.S. business entities with total annual revenues in excess of a billion dollars that “do business in California.” The bill’s mandate would exceed, in several key respects, the requirements in the current SEC climate proposal. Whether this new bill will face the same fate as its predecessor remains to be seen.
In In re McDonald’s Corporation, defendant David Fairhurst, who formerly served as Executive Vice President and Global Chief People Officer of McDonald’s Corporation, contested a stockholders’ claim that he had breached his fiduciary duty of oversight by arguing that there is no fiduciary duty of oversight for officers, only for directors. VC Laster of the Delaware Chancery Court responded this way: “That observation is descriptively accurate, but it does not follow that officers do not owe oversight duties. For centuries dating back to the Roman satirist Juvenal, Europeans used the phrase ‘black swan’ as a figure of speech for something that did not exist. Then in the late eighteen century, Europeans arrived on the shores of Australia, where they found black swans. The fact that no one had seen one before did not mean that they could not or did not exist…. Framed in terms of the issue in this case, decisions recognizing director oversight duties confirm that directors owe those duties; those decisions do not rule out the possibility that officers also owe oversight duties.” With that—and a lengthy exposition—Laster confirmed that Fairhurst did indeed have a duty of oversight, much like the Caremark duties applicable to corporate directors.
In this paper, Ann Lipton, an Associate Professor at Tulane Law School, contends that the “internal affairs” doctrine has gradually expanded its reach and, perhaps as a result, is now facing new challenges. As applied in Delaware—where it is applied most often—the doctrine, she argues, is “on a collision course with the legitimate regulatory interests of other states (and indeed the federal government).” Of course, many will strongly disagree with her argument, especially given the practical implications. Still, it may be worthwhile to gain some insight into her perspective. Is it time to rethink the internal affairs doctrine? The author suggests that a more balanced, targeted approach would be more appropriate and more effective.
At the PLI Securities Regulation Institute last week, the plethora of SEC rulemaking took some hits. It wasn’t simply the quantity of SEC rules and proposals, although that was certainly a factor. But the SEC has issued a lot of proposals in the past. Rather, it was the difficulty and complexity of implementation of these new rules and proposals that seemed to have created the concern that affected companies may just be overwhelmed. Former Corp Fin Director Meredith Cross, a co-chair of the program, pronounced the SEC’s climate proposal “outrageously” difficult, complicated and expensive for companies to implement, and those problems, the panel worried, would only be compounded by the adoption of expected new rules in the EU that would be applicable to many US companies and their EU subsidiaries. (See this Cooley Alert.) The panel feared that companies would be bombarded with a broad, complicated and often inconsistent series of climate/ESG disclosure mandates. Single materiality/double materiality anyone? But it wasn’t just the proposed climate disclosure that contributed to the concern. Recent rulemakings or proposals on stock buybacks, pay versus performance and clawbacks were also singled out as especially challenging for companies to put into effect.
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“California Approves a Wave of Aggressive New Climate Measures” was a headline in the NYT on Thursday, and that included a “record $54 billion in climate spending, a measure to prevent the state’s last nuclear power plant from closing, sharp new restrictions on oil and gas drilling and a mandate that California stop adding carbon dioxide to the atmosphere by 2045.” But one climate bill didn’t make the cut. That was SB 260, California’s Climate Corporate Accountability Act, which, on Wednesday, failed to pass in the California legislature, notwithstanding much ink being devoted to it this past year (see, e.g., this Bloomberg article). Had the bill been signed into law, it would have mandated reporting and disclosure of GHG emissions data—Scopes 1, 2 and 3—by all U.S. business entities with total annual revenues in excess of a billion dollars that “do business in California.” Those requirements for GHG emissions reporting and attestation exceeded even the SEC’s proposed climate disclosure proposal. (See this PubCo post.) And, under the existing broad definition of “doing business” in California, the bill would have captured a large number of companies, estimated to be about 5,500, including many incorporated outside of California. (Nothing new for the Golden State—see this PubCo post and this PubCo post.) According to Politico Pro, Scott Wiener, the sponsor of the legislation, said in a statement that he was “deeply disappointed in this result….If we want to avoid a full climate apocalypse, we need to understand corporate pollution—all the way down the supply chain.” He added that “he ‘won’t give up’ and that he’s ‘very likely’ to reintroduce SB 260 next year.” Time will tell.
Earlier this week, the President signed into law the historic Inflation Reduction Act. Along with important provisions regarding climate and healthcare, the IRA contains several significant tax provisions, including a 15% alternative minimum tax for corporations and a 1% excise tax on corporate stock buybacks. Want more information? Read this Cooley Alert, Tax Implications of the Inflation Reduction Act, from our terrific Cooley Tax Department.