In the wake of Business Roundtable v. SEC, public company shareholders and boards have, for the first time, been using Rule 14a-8 to propose, and defend against, proxy access proposals. Earlier this month, the SEC staff released a series of no-action letters addressing management requests to exclude shareholders’ proxy access proposals from the ballot. The staff has based these early rulings on their longstanding 14a-8 precedents, which were originally crafted to address proposals outside the proxy access context. The staff’s approach leaves open the possibility that management will be able to use these rules to exclude proxy access proposals in the future, endangering the viability of Rule 14a-8 as a means of facilitating private ordering in proxy access. Before next proxy season, the SEC should make clear that it will apply Rule 14a-8 in a way that will give investors a meaningful opportunity to adopt the proxy access rules that shareholders prefer.
Although the staff’s initial rulings addressed important preliminary questions raised by the use of Rule 14a-8 for facilitating proxy access, they were much more notable for their adherence to the staff’s existing precedents for evaluating shareholder proposals outside the proxy access context. This approach has convinced corporate counsel and their clients that the SEC will allow management to use these precedents to exclude proxy access proposals from the ballot. Unless the SEC reverses course, this approach will give management a systematic advantage that will prevent shareholders from adopting their preferred approach to proxy access.