Most likely, what comes to mind when you think about companies’ impeding the ability of a whistleblower to communicate with the SEC are allegations of overly ambitious confidentiality provisions in employment agreements or company policies. Not so in this case. In April, the SEC issued an Order in connection with a settled action charging David Hansen, a co-founder and officer of NS8, Inc., a privately held fraud-detection technology company, with violating the whistleblower protections of the Exchange Act. The SEC alleged that, after an NS8 employee raised concerns to Hansen about a possible securities law violation, Hansen took action to limit the employee’s access to the company’s IT systems. The SEC charged that these actions impeded the employee’s ability to communicate with the SEC in violation of Rule 21F-17(a) and imposed a $97,000 civil penalty. SEC Commissioner Hester Peirce dissented, contending that the SEC’s Order “does not explain what, precisely, Mr. Hansen did to hinder or obstruct direct communication between the NS8 Employee and the Commission.”
In Salzberg v. Sciabacucchi (pronounced Shabacookie), the Delaware Supreme Court unanimously held that charter provisions designating the federal courts as the exclusive forum for ’33 Act claims were “facially valid.” (See this PubCo post.) Given that Sciabacucchi involved a facial challenge, the Supreme Court had viewed the question of enforceability as a “separate, subsequent analysis” that depended “on the manner in which it was adopted and the circumstances under which it [is] invoked.” With regard to the question of enforceability of exclusive federal forum provisions if challenged in the courts of other states, the Delaware Supreme Court said that there were “persuasive arguments,” such as due process and the need for uniformity and predictability, that “could be made to our sister states that a provision in a Delaware corporation’s certificate of incorporation requiring Section 11 claims to be brought in a federal court does not offend principles of horizontal sovereignty,” and should be enforced. But would they be? Following Sciabacucchi, in light of the perceived benefits for defendants of litigating Securities Act claims in federal court, many Delaware companies that did not have FFPs adopted them, and companies with FFPs involved in ’33 Act litigation tried to enforce them by moving to dismiss state court actions. In 2020, in an apparent case of first impression, Wong v. Restoration Robotics, the San Mateo Superior Court in California upheld application of the FFP, declining “jurisdiction over the claims alleged against Restoration Robotics and its officers and directors only, pursuant to the FFP.” (See this PubCo post.) Plaintiff appealed. The California Court of Appeal, First Appellate District, has just affirmed the lower court’s decision, upholding enforcement of the FFP.
As described in this press release, the SEC has filed a complaint against Vale S.A., a publicly traded (NYSE) Brazilian mining company and one of the world’s largest iron ore producers, charging that it made “false and misleading claims about the safety of its dams prior to the January 2019 collapse of its Brumadinho dam. The collapse killed 270 people, caused immeasurable environmental and social harm, and led to a loss of more than $4 billion in Vale’s market capitalization.” The SEC alleged that Vale “fraudulently assured investors that the company adhered to the ‘strictest international practices’ in evaluating dam safety and that 100 percent of its dams were certified to be in stable condition.” Significantly, these statements were contained, not just in Vale’s SEC filings, but also, in large part, in its sustainability reports. According to Gurbir Grewal, Director of Enforcement, “[m]any investors rely on ESG disclosures like those contained in Vale’s annual Sustainability Reports and other public filings to make informed investment decisions….By allegedly manipulating those disclosures, Vale compounded the social and environmental harm caused by the Brumadinho dam’s tragic collapse and undermined investors’ ability to evaluate the risks posed by Vale’s securities.” Notably, the press release refers to the SEC’s Climate and ESG Task Force formed last year in the Division of Enforcement “with a mandate to identify material gaps or misstatements in issuers’ ESG disclosures, like the false and misleading claims made by Vale.” The SEC’s charges arising out of this horrific accident are a version of “event-driven” securities litigation—brought this time, not by shareholders, but by the SEC.
Board diversity statute for “underrepresented communities” held unconstitutional under California’s equal protection provisions
On April 1, the L.A. County Superior Court granted the plaintiffs’ motion for summary judgment in Crest v. Padilla, the taxpayer litigation challenging AB 979, California’s board diversity statute for “underrepresented communities.” (See this PubCo post.) Unfortunately, at the time, only a minute order was released, which did not offer any explanation of the Court’s reasoning. Now, a new 24-page Court Order, which provides the Court’s reasoning, has been made available, and, in it, the Court concludes that the statute, Corporations Code § 301.4, violates the equal protection clause of the California Constitution on its face. Why? Because, in the Court’s view, § 301.4 treats similarly situated individuals differently based on suspect racial and other categories that are not justified by a compelling interest, nor is the statute narrowly tailored to address the interests identified. Will this case have a spillover effect on the decision currently pending of plaintiffs’ taxpayer challenge to California’s board gender diversity statute, SB 826? According to Reuters, the California State Senator who authored SB 826 said that “the case involved a ‘very different set of facts and distinctly different legal issues.’”
Court grants summary judgment to plaintiffs challenging California’s board diversity statute for “underrepresented communities”
As you may recall, SB 826, the California board gender diversity statute, is not the only California board diversity statute facing legal challenges. In 2020, AB 979, California’s board diversity statute for “underrepresented communities,” patterned after the board gender diversity statute, was signed into law, and it too has been facing legal challenges—in fact litigation brought by the same plaintiffs on the same legal basis. (See this PubCo post.) Framed as a “taxpayer suit” much like Crest v. Padilla I, the sequel, Crest v. Padilla II, sought to enjoin Alex Padilla, the then-California Secretary of State, from expending taxpayer funds and taxpayer-financed resources to enforce or implement the law and a judgment declaring the diversity mandate to be unlawful in violation of the California constitution. As Crest v. Padilla I is awaiting a court decision following a bench trial (see this PubCo post), what’s happening in the sequel? After a hearing on motions by both parties for summary judgment in March, the Los Angeles Superior Court took the matter under submission and, on April Fool’s Day, the Court issued its order. But it was no joke—the Court granted plaintiff’s motion for summary judgment. The state has not yet indicated whether it will appeal the decision. In a statement, the president of Judicial Watch, which represented the plaintiffs, said that “[t]his historic California court decision declared unconstitutional one of the most blatant and significant attacks in the modern era on constitutional prohibitions against discrimination.”
With the Court decision still to come, what happened in the first trial of California’s board gender diversity statute?
You might remember that the first legal challenge to SB 826, California’s board gender diversity statute, Crest v. Alex Padilla, was a complaint filed in 2019 in California state court by three California taxpayers seeking to prevent implementation and enforcement of the law. Framed as a “taxpayer suit,” the litigation sought a judgment declaring the expenditure of taxpayer funds to enforce or implement SB 826 to be illegal and an injunction preventing the California Secretary of State from expending taxpayer funds and taxpayer-financed resources for those purposes, alleging that the law’s mandate is an unconstitutional gender-based quota and violates the California constitution. A bench trial began in December in Los Angeles County Superior Court that was supposed to last six or seven days, but you know, one thing and another, closing arguments were just completed and the case has now been submitted. As we await the Court’s decision—and in anticipation of International Women’s Day—it might be interesting to review some of the testimony from the trial.
On Tuesday, the SEC announced settled charges against Baxter International Inc., its former Treasurer and Assistant Treasurer, for misconduct related to improper intra-company foreign exchange transactions that resulted in the misstatement of the company’s net income. From at least 1995 to 2019, the SEC alleged, Baxter converted foreign-currency-denominated transactions and assets and liabilities on its financial statements using its own “convention”—not in accordance with U.S. GAAP. Then, beginning around 2009, the SEC charged, Baxter leveraged the convention to devise a series of non-operating intra-company foreign exchange transactions “for the sole purpose of generating foreign exchange accounting gains or avoiding foreign exchange accounting losses.” In the order against Baxter, the SEC found that the company violated the negligence-based anti-fraud, public reporting, books and records, and internal accounting controls provisions of the federal securities laws and imposed an $18 million penalty. In this order and this order, the SEC found that the company’s Treasurer “did not take any steps to investigate how Baxter’s treasury department generated consistent gains or whether the transactions that generated the gains were permissible,” and that the Assistant Treasurer, working with others at his direction, was “primarily responsible for executing the transactions.” The Treasurer and Assistant Treasurer were determined to have violated the negligence-based anti-fraud provisions of the federal securities laws and to have caused Baxter’s public reporting and books and records violations.
Yesterday, without first holding an open meeting, the SEC posted proposals related to changes in beneficial ownership reporting and changes to the whistleblower program. In the press release announcing the changes in beneficial ownership reporting, SEC Chair Gary Gensler described the amendments as an update designed to modernize reporting requirements for today’s markets, including reducing “information asymmetries,” and addressing “the timeliness of Schedule 13D and 13G filings.” Currently, according to Gensler, investors “can withhold market moving information from other shareholders for 10 days after crossing the 5 percent threshold before filing a Schedule 13D, which creates an information asymmetry between these investors and other shareholders. The filing of Schedule 13D can have a material impact on a company’s share price, so it is important that shareholders get that information sooner. The proposed amendments also would clarify when and how certain derivatives acquired with control intent count towards the 5 percent threshold, clarify group formation, and create related exemptions.” The fact sheet indicates that the current deadlines for filing these initial Schedules have not been updated since 1968 (Schedule 13D) and 1977 (Schedule 13G). A lot has changed since the debut of “Hair” on Broadway and the release of “Hey Jude”—but how come platform shoes are still a thing?—so perhaps a reassessment is in order. Here is the fact sheet, and here is the proposing release.
Recent legislation expected to be signed into law by Delaware’s governor amends the state’s General Corporation Law to expressly allow the use of captive insurance companies to fund a Delaware corporation’s directors and officers insurance coverage. What are the implications?