On April 6, the Governor of Delaware signed an emergency order applicable to public reporting companies addressing the urgent need of many companies, in light of COVID-19, to change their annual meetings from physical locations to virtual-only formats, including at different dates. The order allowed companies to provide notice of the change by issuing and filing with the SEC a press release instead of complying with the Delaware requirement to send a formal written notice to stockholders or convening the meeting to adjourn, which could be extremely difficult under the current circumstances. (See this PubCo post.) However, the order provided relief only to companies that had already sent out, as of the date of the order, notice of a meeting of stockholders that indicated a physical location. What about companies that sent out their notices after April 6, but still needed to make a change? The relief under the Delaware order was apparently not available to them. Now, the Corporate Law Section of the Delaware State Bar has approved a proposal to amend the DGCL to address this issue. Will the Delaware legislature provide the necessary relief? And if so, when?
ISS now has established a COVID-19 resource center, which offers, among other things, a searchable list of companies that are holding virtual meetings this proxy season. As of April 15, the tally for virtual meetings in the U.S. held or to be held this proxy season is 1,015; according to ISS, that number was 286 for all of calendar 2019. In addition, 83 meetings have so far been cancelled or postponed.
Today, in light of the spread of COVID-19, the SEC announced new Corp Fin staff guidance regarding annual meetings. Because of limitations on the ability to hold in-person annual meetings as a result of health and travel concerns, the staff guidance “provides regulatory flexibility to companies seeking to change the date and location of the meetings and use new technologies, such as ‘virtual’ shareholder meetings that avoid the need for in-person shareholder attendance, while at the same time ensuring that shareholders and other market participants are informed of any changes.”
Proxy advisor Glass Lewis has posted its 2019 Proxy Guidelines and 2019 Guidelines Regarding Shareholder Initiatives. One of the more striking points is that GL indicates that it may, albeit in limited circumstances, recommend against the members of the nominating/governance committee simply for successfully requesting no-action relief from the SEC to exclude (and presumably excluding) a shareholder proposal, where GL views the exclusion to have been detrimental to shareholders. GL’s new guidance includes the following updates:
For most companies, annual shareholder meetings are non-events, with little to no shareholder attendance. That’s why the concept of virtual annual meetings—which allow shareholders to overcome the logistical and financial burdens of attendance in person—was originally viewed as a way to rejuvenate the concept of annual meetings. With virtual technology, large numbers of shareholders were suddenly able to attend meetings on their laptops. Ironically, however, it has been shareholders—the designated beneficiaries of the virtual annual meeting—that have raised objections to virtual-only meetings because they were viewed to insulate management and directors from shareholders, allowing management to avoid uncomfortable questions. (See this PubCo post and this PubCo post.) While the number of virtual-only annual meetings increased from 21 in 2011 to 155 in 2016 to over 212 in 2017, the criticism among some commentators and institutional holders has not abated: critics continue to contend that virtual-only meetings limit an important shareholder right, precluding shareholders from direct eye-to-eye engagement with management and the board. With that in mind, a group of interested representatives of retail and institutional investors, public companies, proxy advisors and legal counsel, known as The Best Practices Committee for Shareowner Participation in Virtual Annual Meetings, have developed a set of best practices designed to ensure that the needs of all constituents are satisfied—to “promote both the reality and the perception of scrupulous fairness.”
by Cydney Posner In case you missed it, Gretchen Morgenson’s column in the Sunday NYT railed against virtual-only annual meetings, which according to her data (provided by Broadridge), have increased in number from 21 in 2011 to 154 in 2016. And joining in the condemnation of the practice was NYC […]