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.
Posts Tagged ‘David Katz’
In our Age of Communication, confidential information is more easily exposed than ever before. Real-time communication tools and social media give everyone with Internet access the ability to publicize information widely, and confidential information is always at risk of inadvertent or intentional exposure. The current cultural emphasis on transparency and disclosure—punctuated by headline news of high-profile leakers and whistleblowers, and exacerbated in the corporate context by aggressive activist shareholders and their director nominees—has contributed to an atmosphere in which sensitive corporate information is increasingly difficult to protect. There is limited statutory or case law to guide boards and directors in this area, and there exists a range of opinions among market participants and media commentators as to whether leaking information (other than illegal insider tipping) is problematic at all.
Institutional Shareholder Services Inc. (ISS) recently published its 2014 Corporate Governance Policy Updates, which would apply to annual meetings beginning in February 2014. ISS updated relatively few of its policies this year, but the changes largely represent a more measured, company-specific approach to corporate governance practices, which reflects a move by ISS to avoid “one-size-fits-all” policies and recommendations. ISS also announced a new consultation and comment period concerning potential policy changes applicable to the 2015 proxy season or beyond with respect to director tenure, director independence, independent chair shareholder proposals, equity-based compensation plans and auditor ratification.
2014 Policy Updates
Board Response to Majority Supported Shareholder Proposals. As announced last year, ISS evaluates a company’s response to shareholder proposals that receive a majority of shares cast in considering “withhold” recommendations against the full board, committee members or individual directors. With respect to such majority supported shareholder proposals, ISS will now make vote recommendations on director elections on a case-by-case basis and will no longer require boards to fully implement majority supported shareholder proposals in all cases. Instead, ISS will consider mitigating factors in cases involving less than full implementation, including the board’s articulated rationale for its response and level of implementation (with consideration of such rationales being a new factor not previously considered by ISS), disclosed shareholder outreach efforts by the board in the wake of the vote, the level of support and opposition for the proposal, actions taken, and the continuation of the underlying issue as a voting item on the ballot (as either shareholder or management proposals).
The Delaware Court of Chancery recently determined that forum selection provisions in corporate charters—much like forum selection bylaws—are presumptively valid, and provided guidance on the appropriate procedure to enforce such provisions against a stockholder who files suit in violation of them. Edgen Grp. Inc. v. Genoud, C.A. No. 9055-VCL (Del. Ch. Nov. 5, 2013) (Trans.).
The dispute arose after the Edgen Group announced that it had agreed to sell itself in a premium, all-cash, sales transaction to an unrelated third party. Edgen’s certificate of incorporation includes a provision that provides that any claim of breach of fiduciary duty by an Edgen stockholder must be filed in Delaware. Nevertheless, a putative class action challenging the merger was filed in Louisiana state court. In response, Edgen filed suit against the stockholder in Delaware, asking the Court of Chancery to enjoin him from proceeding in Louisiana.
While the number of women directors on U.S. public company boards has not risen dramatically since 2012, the issue of gender diversity on boards continued to gain momentum and global prominence over the last 12 months. Since we last discussed this issue, new legislative and non-governmental initiatives around the world have resulted in growing numbers of women directors and greater shareholder focus on board diversity and related disclosures. This issue is likely to become increasingly significant in 2014 and beyond, both in the United States and abroad.
Earlier this month, the European Commission moved a step closer to imposing a form of gender quota on major public companies in the European Union. Two committees of the European Parliament voted in favor of a proposal by the European Commission to require certain public companies to increase the representation of women on their boards. The proposed law applies only to large public companies, with no exceptions even for companies in which women compose less than 10 percent of the workforce, and, if adopted, provides for obligatory sanctions for failure to follow the proposed requirements.
Last week, the United States Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit held that a claim alleging a false statement of opinion or belief in a registration statement may proceed under Section 11 of the Securities Act notwithstanding the absence of allegations showing that the defendants did not actually hold the opinion or believe the statement. Indiana State District Council of Laborers & Hod Carriers Pension & Welfare Fund v. Omnicare, Inc., (6th Cir. May 23, 2013). The Sixth Circuit’s decision conflicts with decisions of the Second and Ninth Circuits holding that liability under Section 11 for a statement of belief or opinion would exist only if the statement was both objectively and subjectively false or misleading. See Fait v. Regions Financial Corp., 655 F.3d 105 (2d Cir. 2011); Rubke v. Capital Bancorp Ltd., 551 F.3d 1156 (9th Cir. 2009). Under that standard, a Section 11 complaint that fails to plausibly allege that a defendant did not actually believe the false statement or hold the opinion would be dismissed.
The topic of this outline is mergers and acquisitions where the target company is “distressed.” Distress for these purposes generally means that a company is having difficulty dealing with its liabilities—whether in making required payments on borrowed money, obtaining or paying down trade credit, addressing debt covenant breaches, or raising additional debt to address funding needs.
Distressed companies can represent attractive acquisition targets. Their stock and their debt often trade at prices reflecting the difficulties they face, and they may be under pressure to sell assets or securities quickly to raise capital or pay down debt. Accordingly, prospective acquirors may have an opportunity to acquire attractive assets or securities at a discount. This outline considers how best to acquire a distressed company from every possible point of entry, whether that consists of buying existing or newly-issued stock, merging with the target, buying assets, or buying existing debt in the hope that it converts into ownership.
Some modestly distressed companies require a mere “band-aid” (such as a temporary waiver of a financial maintenance covenant when the macroeconomy has led to a temporary decline in earnings, but the company is able to meet all of its obligations as they come due). Others require “major surgery” (as where the company is fundamentally over-levered and must radically reduce debt).
We have previously discussed a wave of “say-on-pay” lawsuits focused on allegedly inadequate proxy disclosures (in a memo, article, and memo). At least six courts (four state and two federal) have denied requests for injunctive relief against say-on-pay votes. Now, a federal court that had already denied preliminary injunctive relief has dismissed the complaint with prejudice. Noble v. AAR Corp., No. 12 C 7973 (N.D. Ill. Apr. 3, 2013).
Applying Delaware and federal law, the Northern District of Illinois held that Delaware law did not require a company soliciting proxies in advisory say-on-pay vote to disclose information beyond that specified in Regulation S-K:
The widespread use of social media in today’s global marketplace presents opportunities and challenges for all financial market participants, including boards of directors, investors and regulators. While social media outlets provide unprecedented pathways for companies to engage actively with investors, both large and small, as well as with reporters, analysts, customers, suppliers and other members of the corporate community, there are regulatory restrictions that public companies need to heed. Releasing information via Twitter, Facebook, and similar channels must be done with caution to avoid violating Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) Regulation FD as it currently stands. Moreover, companies are vulnerable to negative publicity that can be quickly and widely disseminated over social media networks, even if they are not active participants in such channels.
As public companies increasingly use and rely upon the new avenues of communication provided by social media, it is correspondingly important for directors to be aware of the manner and extent of their companies’ use of social media and have a basic understanding of the risks and benefits of corporate participation. At the same time, it may be incumbent upon the SEC to revisit Regulation FD. The immediacy and availability of communications made through social media suit the purpose of Regulation FD far better than anything available at the time of its passage in 2000; by failing to update Regulation FD, the SEC may find that the rule is impeding rather than furthering its stated goals. Fundamentally, the interests of all market participants are aligned when it comes to encouraging companies to use social media consistently, effectively, and legally, as enhanced transparency and increased engagement generally benefit the market as a whole.
Reaffirming that the advisory “say-on-pay” vote required by the Dodd-Frank Act cannot be used to attack directors’ executive compensation decisions, the United States District Court for the District of Delaware recently dismissed a derivative complaint brought after a negative say-on-pay vote. The court, applying Delaware law, found that the plaintiff had not pleaded facts sufficient to show that demand would have been futile, or to state a claim upon which relief could be granted. Raul v. Rynd, C.A. No. 11-560-LPS (D. Del. March 14, 2013).
The complaint was filed in 2011, and was one of a number of similar lawsuits filed after Dodd-Frank’s requirement for advisory votes on compensation came into effect. The plaintiff challenged the board’s compensation decisions, alleging that increased compensation in a year when the company posted a net operating loss and negative shareholder return violated the company’s pay-for-performance philosophy and rendered the company’s compensation disclosures in its proxy statement misleading. The plaintiff asserted that the negative shareholder advisory vote rebutted the presumption of business judgment surrounding the board’s compensation decisions.