Shareholder voting, once given up for dead as a vestige or ritual of little practical importance, has come roaring back as a key part of American corporate governance. Where once voting was limited to uncontested annual election of directors, it is now common to see short slate proxy contests, board declassification proposals, and “Say on Pay” votes occurring at public companies. The surge in the importance of shareholder voting has caused increased conflict between shareholders and directors, a tension well-illustrated in recent high profile voting fights in takeovers (e.g. Dell) and in the growing role for Say on Pay votes. Yet, despite the obvious importance of shareholder voting, none of the existing corporate law theories coherently justify it.
Archive for the ‘Corporate Elections & Voting’ Category
This proxy season, rather than following the traditional route of seeking no-action relief from the Securities and Exchange Commission (“SEC”) (or, in one instance, after receiving a no-action denial), at least four companies have filed lawsuits against activist investor John Chevedden, in each case requesting declaratory judgment that the company may properly exclude Chevedden’s proposed shareholder resolution from the proxy materials for its 2014 annual meeting. While companies have enjoyed judicial victories against Chevedden in the recent past (including during the current proxy season), this month, for the first time, three federal courts dismissed actions against Chevedden, citing lack of subject matter jurisdiction.
On March 10, 2014, in a no-action letter to SeaWorld Entertainment, Inc. (the “Company”), the Securities and Exchange Commission (“SEC”) signaled its position that shareholders seeking to submit proposals for inclusion in the proxy materials of newly-public companies are not exempt from the requirement in Rule 14a-8(b)(1) that proponents must hold the requisite amount of stock in the company for at least one year by the date on which they have submitted their proposal.
The 2008 financial crisis and the slow recovery that has followed has brought further evidence tending to support the view that the structure of our corporate sector needs adjustment, and that its faults affect the competitiveness of our economy. The crisis has resulted, as would be expected, in a raft of new rules and regulations, which as usual have been implemented before there emerged any consensus about the nature of the problems. There has also been a vigorous competition of ideas over causes and remedies.
In a news alert released last week, the Shareholder Rights Project (SRP), working with SRP-represented investors, announced the high level of company responsiveness to engagements during the 2014 proxy season. In particular, as discussed in more detail below, major results obtained so far include the following:
- Following active engagement, about three-quarters of the S&P 500 and Fortune 500 companies that received declassification proposals for 2014 annual meetings from SRP-represented investors have already entered into agreements to move towards board declassification.
- This outcome reinforces the SRP’s expectation (announced in a blog post available here) that, by the end of 2014, the work of the SRP and SRP-represented investors will have resulted in about 100 board declassifications by S&P 500 and Fortune 500 companies.
Toward Board Declassification in 100 S&P 500 and Fortune 500 Companies: The SRP’s Report for the 2012 and 2013 Proxy Seasons
The Shareholder Rights Project (SRP) just released its final report for the 2012 and 2013 proxy seasons, the SRP’s first two years year of operations. As the report details, major results obtained include the following:
- 100 S&P 500 and Fortune 500 companies (listed here) entered into agreements to move toward declassification;
- 81 S&P 500 and Fortune 500 companies (listed here) declassified their boards; these companies have aggregate market capitalization exceeding one trillion dollars, and represent about two-thirds of the companies with which engagement took place;
- 58 successful declassification proposals (listed here), with average support of 81% of votes cast; and
- Proposals by SRP-represented investors represented over 50% of all successful precatory proposals by public pension funds and over 20% of all successful precatory proposals by all proponents.
Thursday February 13, 2014 was an important day for shareholder democracy in Canada. We know that athletes train many years in order to reach the Olympics, but the Canadian Coalition for Good Governance (CCGG) also has worked publicly and behind the scenes for many years to bring majority voting to Canada. Finally, last week the Toronto Stock Exchange (TSX) agreed to adopt a listing requirement effective June 30, 2014 pursuant to which TSX listed companies (other than those which are majority controlled) must adopt a majority voting policy which requires each director of a TSX listed issuer to be elected by a majority of the votes cast with respect to his or her election other than at contested meetings.
There are many good, independent boards of directors at public companies in the United States. Unfortunately, there are also many ineffectual boards composed of cronies of CEOs and management teams, and such boards routinely use corporate capital to hire high-priced “advisors” to design defense mechanisms, such as the staggered board and poison pill, that serve to insulate them from criticism. Recently, these advisors have created a particularly pernicious new mechanism to protect their deep-pocketed clients—a bylaw amendment (which we call the “Director Disqualification Bylaw”) that disqualifies certain people from seeking to replace incumbent members of a board of directors. Under a Director Disqualification Bylaw, a person is not eligible for election to the board of directors if he is nominated by a shareholder and the shareholder has agreed to pay the nominee a fee, such as a cash payment to compensate the nominee for taking the time and effort to seek election in a proxy fight, or compensation that is tied to performance of the company. 
The SEC’s Division of Corporation Finance recently released three Compliance and Disclosure Interpretations concerning the SEC’s so-called unbundling rule (Exchange Act Rule 14a-4(a)(3)), which requires proxies to identify clearly and impartially each “separate matter” intended to be acted upon.
Nearly a year ago, in Greenlight Capital, L.P. v. Apple, Inc., a federal court enjoined Apple from bundling four charter amendments into a single proposal. The Apple decision highlighted the lack of clarity in the unbundling rules and the risk that the SEC or an activist shareholder could challenge a company’s presentation of proposals. The new C&DIs provide bright-line guidance for amendments to equity incentive plans but leave other situations to be considered on a facts-and-circumstances basis and, implicitly, to be discussed with the SEC Staff in cases of uncertainty.
Two new concepts will need to be addressed going forward:
Institutional Shareholder Services Inc. (ISS) has announced the governance factors and other technical specifications underlying its new Governance QuickScore 2.0 product, which ISS will apply to publicly traded companies for the 2014 proxy season. Companies have until 8pm ET on Friday, February 7th to verify the underlying raw data and can submit updates and corrections through ISS’s data review and verification site. ISS will release company ratings on Tuesday, February 18th, and the scores will be included in proxy research reports issued to institutional shareholders. While previous QuickScore ratings remained static between annual meeting periods, ISS has now committed to update ratings on an on-going basis based on a company’s public disclosures throughout the calendar year.