The issue of mandatory arbitration bylaws is a hot potato—and a partisan one at that (with Rs tending to favor and Ds tending to oppose). And in this no-action letter issued yesterday to Johnson & Johnson—granting relief to the company if it relied on Rule 14a-8(i)(2) (violation of law) to exclude a shareholder proposal requesting adoption of mandatory arbitration bylaws—Corp Fin successfully passed the potato off to the State of New Jersey. Crisis averted. However, the issue was so fraught that SEC Chair Jay Clayton felt the need to issue a statement supporting the staff’s hands-off position: “The issue of mandatory arbitration provisions in the bylaws of U.S. publicly-listed companies has garnered a great deal of attention. As I have previously stated, the ability of domestic, publicly-listed companies to require shareholders to arbitrate claims against them arising under the federal securities laws is a complex matter that requires careful consideration,” consideration that would be more appropriate at the Commissioner level than at the staff level. However, as Clayton has previously indicated, mandatory arbitration is not an issue that he is anxious to have the SEC wade into at this time. To be sure, if the parties really want a binding answer on the merits, he suggested, they might be well advised to seek a judicial determination.
Corp Fin has posted a new Compliance & Disclosure Interpretation under Reg S-K that relates to diversity disclosure. The new interpretation applies to both Item 401— Directors, Executive Officers, Promoters and Control Persons and Item 407—Corporate Governance.
NYC Comptroller goes straight to court to compel inclusion of shareholder proposal—is this the Comptroller’s new normal?
Post-shutdown, the SEC is starting to catch up on no-action requests to exclude shareholder proposals, posting several new entries at the end of last week. While most of the responses reflected withdrawals of requests in light of withdrawal of the subject proposal, one of the more interesting withdrawal letters relates to a decision to include a shareholder proposal. The proposal, submitted by the New York City Employees’ Retirement System and other pension funds overseen by NYC Comptroller Scott Stringer, sought to have TransDigm Group Incorporated, a manufacturer of aerospace components, adopt a policy related to climate change. After the company sought no-action relief from the SEC staff—and notably well before the government shutdown and before the SEC had even responded to the company’s request—the proponent pension funds filed suit in the SDNY seeking to enjoin the company from soliciting proxies without including the shareholder proposal and declaratory relief that the exclusion of the proposal violated Section l4(a) and Rule l4a-8. Will the Comptroller use the same tactic of circumventing the traditional SEC process and commencing litigation for any proposal the pension funds submit in the future? Will going straight to court be the new normal?
Today, Corp Fin posted a statement regarding its return to normal operations. For the most part, “absent compelling circumstances,” Corp Fin expects to address filings, submissions and requests in the order submitted. The message is this: expect everything to take longer than usual as the staff plays catch-up.
Happy holidays and happy new year everyone!
Here’s the latest from the SEC:
In the event of a federal government shutdown, the SEC will follow the agency’s plan, which contemplates focusing on “market integrity and investor protection.” Starting Thursday, December 27, the SEC “will have only an extremely limited number of staff members available to respond to emergency situations involving market integrity and investor protection, including law enforcement. In addition, certain Commission systems, including EDGAR, will be operating. Additional information is available from the Division of Corporation Finance and the Division of Investment Management.” Corp Fin has provided some FAQs (summarized below) that may be helpful for those in the registration process or contemplating offerings.
On the heels of the release of SLB 14J, Corp Fin has posted a couple of new no-action letters that shed some more light on the “ordinary business” exclusion of Rule 14a-8(i)(7). As you may recall, in SLB 14J, the staff addressed the nature of the board analysis the staff would find most “helpful” in evaluating a no-action request to exclude a shareholder proposal under Rule 14a-8(i)(7), as well as “micromanagement” as a basis for exclusion under that same Rule. Most impressive is that, in the response letters, the staff actually includes a sentence or two that provides some insight into the staff’s reasoning. If you recall, a request for more clarity from the staff was one of the comments raised at the SEC’s proxy roundtable, and the staff appears to have heard. (See this PubCo post.) Both of the letters were submitted in connection with proposals to Walgreens Boots Alliance.
Corp Fin has posted some updates to its CDIs relating to the new rule amendments regarding smaller reporting companies. (See this Cooley Alert and the SEC’s Amendments to the Smaller Reporting Company Definition — Compliance Guide.) In connection with the new updates, Corp Fin has also withdrawn a number of CDIs (presumably, at least in part, because they were no longer appropriate in view of the changes to the rules). Below are summaries: