You might recall that this past proxy season witnessed a significant number of shareholder proposals related to ESG—from both sides of the aisle. (See this PubCo post.) One of those proposals was submitted by the National Center for Public Policy Research to The Kroger Co., which operates supermarkets, regarding the omission of consideration of “viewpoint” and “ideology” from its equal employment opportunity policy. Kroger sought to exclude the proposal as “ordinary business” under Rule 14a-8(i)(7), and Corp Fin concurred. After Corp Fin and the SEC refused reconsideration of the decision, the NCPPR petitioned the Fifth Circuit for review. Now, the National Association of Manufacturers has requested, and been granted, leave to intervene in the case, claiming that neither the federal securities laws nor the First Amendment allows the SEC to use Rule 14a-8 to compel companies to speak about contentious political or social issues, such as abortion, climate change, diversity or gun control, that are “unrelated to its core business or the creation of shareholder value.” That is, NAM isn’t just arguing about Corp Fin’s greenlighting of the exclusion of NCPPR’s proposal—in fact, NAM agrees that “Kroger should not be forced to include petitioners’ policy proposal in Kroger’s proxy statement.” Rather, NAM is upping the ante considerably by challenging whether the SEC has any business “dictat[ing] the content of public company proxy ballots and the topics on which shareholders are required to cast votes.” According to NAM’s Chief Legal Officer, “[m]anufacturers are facing an onslaught of activists seeking to hijack the proxy ballot to advance narrow political agendas, and the SEC has become a willing partner in the effort. The corporate proxy ballot is not the appropriate venue for policy decisions better made by America’s elected representatives, and manufacturers are regularly caught in the middle as activists on the left and the right bring fights from the political arena into the boardroom.”
On Thursday, SCOTUS decided Slack Technologies v. Pirani in a unanimous opinion by Justice Gorsuch holding that, even in a registration by direct listing, §11(a) liability extends only to shares that are traceable to an allegedly defective registration statement. As you know, §11 provides statutory standing to sue for misstatements in a registration statement to any person acquiring “such security,” historically interpreted to mean a security registered under the specific registration statement. However, in Pirani v. Slack Technologies, a divided three-judge panel of the 9th Circuit had ruled that the plaintiff could recover under §11 even in the absence of tracing to the registration statement for the direct listing. Now, SCOTUS has reversed and remanded the case for reconsideration in light of the Court’s decision. Given the difficulty of tracing in connection with direct listings, where both registered and preexisting unregistered shares may be sold at the same time, the question put to Slack counsel by Justice Kavanaugh during oral argument in April looms large: does the Court’s determination in this case “essentially transform the ’33 Act into an opt-out regime for direct listings”?
Federal court holds unconstitutional California’s board diversity statute regarding “underrepresented communities”
There have been a number of challenges to California’s board diversity legislation, SB 826, the board gender diversity statute, and AB 979, the board diversity statute regarding “underrepresented communities.” In two cases, Crest v. Padilla I and II, filed in state court, the plaintiffs notched wins and the court issued injunctions against implementation and enforcement of these two statutes. Both of these cases are currently on appeal, and the injunctions remain in place. But there were also cases filed in federal court, and, in one of those cases, Alliance for Fair Board Recruitment v. Weber, the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of California has just granted the Plaintiff’s motion for summary judgment, concluding that AB 979 is unconstitutional on its face. The federal court decision could have reverberations in other states and potentially influence the ongoing state court appeals (as could an earlier decision on SB 826 by the Court going the other way. See the third SideBar below.)
In this report from Cornerstone Research, SEC Accounting and Auditing Enforcement Activity—Year in Review: FY 2022, Cornerstone tells us that accounting and auditing enforcement activity by the SEC increased sharply in FY 2022, although surprisingly, the aggregate amount of monetary settlements declined sharply. Perhaps most interesting is the steep increase in actions against individuals, reportedly reflecting the emphasis of SEC Chair Gary Gensler on imposing individual accountability and perhaps, by extension, spurring action by executives to prevent misconduct at their companies. The report found that over “half of all actions involved individual respondents only, a sharp increase from the FY 2017–FY 2021 average of 37%. Following Chair Gary Gensler’s swearing-in [in April 2021] through the end of FY 2022, approximately 49% of actions were initiated against individual respondents only.” According to one of the co-authors of the report, “[u]nder Chair Gensler’s leadership, the SEC has identified ‘holding individuals accountable’ as a ‘key priority area’ in its enforcement program”…. So, it is not a surprise that the percentage of actions initiated against individual respondents in FY 2022 was notably higher than those actions initiated during Jay Clayton’s administration.”
On May 1, SCOTUS granted cert in the case of Loper Bright Enterprises v. Raimondo, a case about whether the National Marine Fisheries Service has the authority to require fishing vessels to pay some of the costs for onboard federal observers who are required to monitor regulatory compliance. So why is this relevant to public companies? Because one of the questions presented to SCOTUS was whether the Court should continue the decades-long deference of courts, under Chevron U.S.A., Inc. v. Nat. Res. Def. Council, to the reasonable interpretations of statutes by agencies (such as the SEC). The doctrine of Chevron deference, articulated in that case, mandated that, if there is ambiguity in how to interpret a statute, courts must accept an agency’s interpretation of a law unless it is arbitrary or manifestly contrary to the statute. The decision, expected next term, could narrow, or even completely undo, that deference. Of course, the conservative members of the Court have long signaled their desire to rein in the dreaded “administrative state.” (See, for example, the dissent of Chief Justice John Roberts in City of Arlington v. FCC back in 2013, where he worried that “the danger posed by the growing power of the administrative state cannot be dismissed.”) But, in recent past cases, the Court has resolved issues and avoided addressing Chevron. This case, however, may well present that long-sought opportunity. Depending on the outcome, its impact could be felt far beyond the Marine Fisheries Service at many other agencies, including the SEC.
When the SEC was considering the NYSE’s proposal to permit direct listings of primary offerings, one of the frequently raised difficulties related to the potential “vulnerability” of “shareholder legal rights under Section 11 of the Securities Act.” Section 11 provides statutory standing to sue for misstatements in a registration statement to any person acquiring “such security,” historically interpreted to mean a security registered under the specific registration statement. The “vulnerability” was thought to arise as a result of the difficulty plaintiffs may have—in a direct listing where both registered and unregistered shares may be sold at the same time—in “tracing” the shares purchased back to the registration statement in question. In approving adoption of the NYSE rule, the SEC said that it did not “expect any such tracing challenges in this context to be of such magnitude as to render the proposal inconsistent with the Act. We expect judicial precedent on traceability in the direct listing context to continue to evolve,” pointing to Pirani v. Slack Technologies. As the NYSE had observed, only the court in Slack had addressed the issue, and had concluded that, at the pleading stage, plaintiffs could still pursue their claims even if they could not definitively trace the securities they acquired to the registration statement. However, the NYSE noted, the case was on appeal. (See this PubCo post.) The case, Pirani v. Slack Technologies, was decided by a divided three-judge panel of the 9th Circuit, with the court affirming, with one dissent, the district court’s order, ruling that the plaintiff had standing to sue under Section 11. But that decision was appealed to SCOTUS, which granted cert. On Monday, SCOTUS heard oral argument. Justice Kagan may be a bellwether: addressing Pirani’s counsel, she advised that “it does seem to me like you have a hard row to hoe here.” But that was about Section 11. Section 12(a)(2)? Well, that’s another matter.
The Department of Justice has stepped up its enforcement of antitrust rules against interlocking directorates. Subject to de minimis exceptions, Section 8 of the Clayton Antitrust Act prohibits the same person from serving on the boards of two competitors. But recently, the DOJ has interpreted the statute more broadly, leading to director resignations where different individuals—who were associated with the same private equity or venture capital firm—served on the boards of competing companies. Companies should take care to assess their Section 8 exposure, as discussed in this excellent Alert from the Cooley Antitrust group, Biden Justice Department Continues Focus on Interlocking Directorates. Be sure to check it out!
In April of last year, as described in this press release, the SEC 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. In discussing the charges, the press release made reference to the SEC’s Climate and ESG Task Force formed in 2021 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.” On Tuesday, the SEC announced that Vale had agreed to pay $55.9 million to settle the SEC charges. According to the Associate Director of Enforcement, the SEC’s “action against Vale illustrates the interplay between the company’s sustainability reports and its obligations under the federal securities law….The terms of today’s settlement, if approved by the court, will levy a significant financial penalty against Vale and demonstrate that public companies can and should be held accountable for material misrepresentations in their ESG-related disclosures, just as they would for any other material misrepresentations.”
Workplace sexual harassment and related misconduct—a toxic boys’-club atmosphere—led to three recent cases against McDonald’s, its management and board. And studies have shown that workplace sexual harassment can have substantial adverse “psychological, health, and job-related consequences” for employees, often resulting in “higher employee turnover, lower employee productivity, increased absenteeism, and increased sick leave costs.” But what is the impact for shareholders? A study in the Journal of Business Ethics, “How Much Does Workplace Sexual Harassment Hurt Firm Value?”, looked at just this question. Earlier studies of the impact of workplace sexual harassment looked at the short-term impact on the market, but this study analyzed the “longer-term effect on firm value starting from the date when harassment risk affects employee morale.” The study found that sexual harassment led to much greater damage—manifested in significant reductions in stock performance and profitability—than previously realized: the stock prices of the group of companies with the highest levels of pervasive harassment underperformed those of an equivalent group with low levels of harassment by about 17%. The study also showed that these “high-SH” companies experienced a decline in operating profitability and an increase in labor costs. One of the paper’s co-authors told Corporate Secretary, “[f]inancial analysts and investors often undervalue intangibles such as the effect of a toxic work environment…But [workplace safety] is indicative of all sorts of other underlying issues, including poor control systems and overall bad governance, which can directly impact employee performance, company performance and stock market value.”