This terrific Cooley Alert, Ninth Circuit Upholds Delaware Forum-Selection Clause, Dismisses Federal Derivative Action, from our Securities Litigation + Enforcement group, discusses a recent Ninth Circuit decision, Lee v. Fisher, upholding the enforceability of forum-selection clauses requiring shareholders to file derivative claims—even derivative claims brought under Section 14(a) of the Exchange Act—in the Delaware Court of Chancery. Because Section 14(a) claims can be brought only in federal court, the Alert points out, the upshot of this decision is that shareholders cannot assert derivative claims under Section 14(a) in any court.
Last week, both the NYSE and Nasdaq filed with the SEC amendments delaying until October 2 the effective dates of their proposed listing standards requiring listed issuers to develop and implement clawback policies. On Friday afternoon, the SEC approved the proposed rule changes, as modified by the respective Amendments No. 1, on an accelerated basis. What does that time delay mean for companies? Under the SEC final rules and the proposed listing standards, each listed issuer is required to adopt the mandated clawback policy no later than 60 days following the effective date of the rule. Prior to the amendments, the effective dates were designated by both exchanges as the SEC approval dates, which the SEC had just extended to June 11. (See this PubCo post.) Now, with October 2 as the effective date for both proposals, companies will have until December 1 to put their clawback policies in place.
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.)
Last week, Corp Fin posted (and then deleted and reposted—but that’s another story) three new CDIs regarding the affirmative defense under Rule 10b5-1. As you may recall, in December last year, the SEC adopted new amendments to the rules regarding Rule 10b5-1 plans. These amendments added new conditions to the affirmative defense of Rule 10b5-1(c) designed to address concerns about abuse of the rule by opportunistic trading on the basis of material non-public information. Among other changes, Rule 10b5-1(c)(1) was amended to apply a cooling-off period to persons other than the issuer, impose a good-faith certification requirement on directors and officers, limit the ability of persons other than the issuer to use multiple overlapping Rule 10b5-1 plans, limit the use of single-trade plans by persons other than the issuer to one single-trade plan in any 12-month period, and add a condition that all persons entering into Rule 10b5-1 plans must act in good faith with respect to those plans. In addition, the amendments included requirements for new disclosures regarding (1) companies’ insider trading policies and procedures, and the use of 10b5-1 plans and certain other similar trading arrangements by directors and officers; (2) director and officer equity compensation awards made close in time to company to disclosure of MNPI; and (3) bona fide gifts of securities on Forms 4 by Section 16 filers and transactions under 10b5-1 plans on Forms 4 and 5. (See this PubCo post.) The new CDIs relate to the timing of compliance and the use and termination of multiple plans.
Here’s a scoop from S&P Global Market Intelligence : apparently, the climate disclosure rulemaking that was targeted for adoption in April 2023 has now been pushed back to the fall. At least that’s the information that former SEC Commissioner Robert Jackson has learned and revealed on a recent webinar. But given the thousands of comment letters and all the controversy over the climate disclosure rules, including pushback from politicians claiming the SEC had no authority to adopt climate disclosure rules, are you really surprised?
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.