Alleged workplace misconduct—and the obligation to collect information and report up about it—rears its head again in yet another case, this time involving Activision Blizzard, Inc. Just last month, in In re McDonald’s Corporation, the former “Chief People Officer” of McDonald’s Corporation was alleged to have breached his fiduciary duty of oversight by consciously ignoring red flags about sexual harassment and misconduct in the workplace. According to the court in that case, the defendant “had an obligation to make a good faith effort to put in place reasonable information systems so that he obtained the information necessary to do his job and report to the CEO and the board, and he could not consciously ignore red flags indicating that the corporation was going to suffer harm.” (See this PubCo post.) Now, the SEC has issued an Order in connection with a settled action alleging that Activision Blizzard, Inc., a videogame developer and publisher, violated the Exchange Act’s disclosure controls rule because it “lacked controls and procedures designed to ensure that information related to employee complaints of workplace misconduct would be communicated to Activision Blizzard’s disclosure personnel to allow for timely assessment on its disclosures.” In addition, the SEC alleged that the company violated the whistleblower protection rules by requiring, in separation agreements, that former employees “notify the company if they received a request from a government administrative agency in connection with a report or complaint.” As a result, Activision Blizzard agreed to pay a $35 million civil penalty. These cases suggest that company actions (or lack thereof) around workplace misconduct and information gathering and reporting about it have resonance far beyond employment law. It’s also noteworthy that this Order represents yet another case (see this PubCo post) where a “control failure” is a lever used by SEC Enforcement to bring charges against a company notwithstanding the absence of any specific allegations of material misrepresentation or misleading disclosure, a point underscored by Commissioner Hester Peirce in her dissenting statement, discussed below.
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.