The private equity firm that was the controlling stockholder of Orchard Enterprises effected a squeeze-out merger of the minority public stockholders. Two years later, a Delaware appraisal proceeding determined that Orchard’s shares at the time of the merger were worth more than twice as much as was paid in the merger. Public shareholders then brought suit, claiming that the directors who had approved the merger and the controlling stockholder had breached their fiduciary duties and should be held liable for damages. The Orchard decision  issued by the Delaware Chancery Court this past Friday adjudicates the parties’ respective motions for summary judgment before trial.
Posts Tagged ‘Proxy disclosure’
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:
As we begin 2014, calendar-year companies are immersed in preparing for what promises to be another busy proxy season. We continue to see shareholder proposals on many of the same subjects addressed during last proxy season, as discussed in our post recapping shareholder proposal developments in 2013. To help public companies and their boards of directors prepare for the coming year’s annual meeting and plan ahead for other corporate governance developments in 2014, we discuss below several key topics to consider.
In light of increased transparency and governance expectations imposed by shareholder advisory groups and increasingly aggressive attempts by plaintiffs’ firms to enjoin shareholder votes on key compensation issues, U.S. public companies face a substantial burden to provide adequate disclosure in their annual proxy statements. This Director Notes examines the key disclosure issues and challenges facing companies during the 2013 proxy season and provides examples of company responses to these issues taken from proxy statements filed during the first half of 2013.
U.S. public companies face a substantial burden to provide adequate disclosure in their annual proxy statements. In addition to complying with a growing number of increasingly burdensome disclosure rules from Congress and the Securities and Exchange Commission (“SEC”), companies must take into account corporate governance guidelines from institutional shareholder advisory groups such as Institutional Shareholder Services (“ISS”) and Glass Lewis & Co. Moreover, a recent wave of proxy injunction lawsuits has added to this burden and created additional issues and challenges for companies. The plaintiffs’ bar has also been actively pursuing damage claims against public companies based on disclosure and corporate governance issues, including issues relating to Section 162(m) of the Internal Revenue Code of 1986, as amended (the “Code”). All of these developments present many traps for the unwary. As a result, companies should review their executive compensation disclosure and their say-on-pay and equity plan proposals to determine whether additional disclosures, beyond those required by statutes and rules, are appropriate to attempt to reduce the risk of a potential lawsuit or investigation by a plaintiff’s law firm.
In In re Plains Exploration & Production Co. S’holder Litig., the Delaware Court of Chancery denied the plaintiffs’ request to enjoin a merger between Plains Exploration & Production Company and Freeport-McMoran Copper & Gold even though the Plains board of directors (1) did not shop Plains before agreeing to be acquired by Freeport for a combination of cash and stock, (2) did not obtain price protection on the stock component of the merger consideration and (3) allowed its CEO (who Freeport had decided to retain after closing) to lead negotiations with Freeport. The Court also held that the estimates of future free cash flows prepared by Plains’ financial advisor did not need to be disclosed in Plains’ proxy materials because management’s estimates of cash flows were already disclosed.
In early 2012, the CEOs of Freeport and Plains discussed an acquisition of Plains by Freeport. The Plains board did not shop the company to other potential buyers or form a special committee, instead allowing the CEO to lead negotiations with Freeport even after becoming aware of the fact that Freeport had determined to retain the Plains CEO after the merger. The Court noted that the Plains CEO was “motivated to obtain the best deal possible” given that a higher merger price would have resulted in a larger payout to him as a substantial stockholder (although ultimately he agreed to roll his stock into the post-merger company).
Throughout my tenure as an SEC Commissioner, I have spoken out repeatedly on the subject of diversity – and the benefits it can bring to our economy. I strongly believe in the importance of diversity and inclusion. I continue to be deeply concerned with the lack of significant progress in the recruitment, retention, and promotion of women and persons of color – whether in corporate boardrooms, Wall Street, or at my own agency, the SEC.
Today, although much of what I will say applies equally to other forms of diversity such as race and ethnicity, I will focus my remarks on the important issue of gender diversity in corporate America – particularly:
- The wealth of talent and positive impact of gender diversity;
- The dismal lack of progress in increasing gender diversity on corporate boards; and
- Improving disclosures about diversity, or the lack thereof.
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:
This post addresses an emerging litigation trend that entails a higher degree of litigation risk than in past years. Companies familiar with shareholder litigation in the context of mergers and acquisitions transactions know that virtually all material corporate transactions attract plaintiffs’ lawyers who, suing on behalf of shareholders, allege that proxy materials published ahead of a shareholder vote are, for one reason or another, false or misleading. These plaintiffs’ lawyers typically seek a quick settlement in which the issuer avoids a possible injunction delaying the shareholder vote on the proposed transaction by publishing “corrected” disclosure. In return, the plaintiffs’ lawyers demand a fee for the purported “benefit” to the shareholder class.
This proxy season, there has been an uptick in the number of cases in which plaintiffs’ lawyers assert similar claims in connection with “say-on-pay” proxy disclosures and approval of equity incentive plans. Although many of these cases have been dismissed, or motions for preliminary injunctive relief have been denied by the courts, some issuers are electing to settle such claims to avoid even a remote possibility of a delayed annual shareholder meeting and the burden and expense associated with litigation. Recent press reports highlight this growing trend.  We outline below the current trend and several suggested strategies for addressing this new proxy litigation.
The say-on-pay advisory vote requirements of the Dodd-Frank Act of 2010 have turned out to be a fertile source of nuisance litigation filed by aggressive plaintiffs’ lawyers. The first wave of lawsuits generally consisted of after-the-fact actions targeting companies that experienced failed say-on-pay advisory votes. These initial cases, which appeared primarily to be attempts to extort settlements, were nearly all dismissed on procedural grounds. The current wave, embodied by a recent spate of lawsuits filed primarily by a single plaintiffs’ law firm, is potentially more problematic from a practical perspective for targeted companies, even though the claims involved appear to have even less basis in law or fact. The pattern of these recent actions is for a lawsuit to be filed in state court sometime between the filing of the definitive proxy statement and the date of the annual meeting, alleging that the proxy disclosure is inadequate with respect to executive compensation (or relating to the authorization or issuance of additional common shares for equity incentive plans), claiming breach of fiduciary duty by directors, and calling for the shareholder meeting to be enjoined until additional disclosure is made.
Directors and corporate managers need to be prepared for this type of proxy disclosure litigation, particularly since it appears that little can be done to prevent such lawsuits from being brought. Boards of companies that are targeted in this manner may feel significant pressure to settle because they do not want to postpone the annual meeting or, worse, face the possibility that the required say-on-pay advisory vote or other needed votes could be enjoined. However, it is worth noting that the earlier wave of lawsuits that targeted companies with failed say-on-pay votes has subsided, undoubtedly due to the discouraging results obtained by the plaintiffs in court. The same fate is likely to befall the current wave, but only if companies are willing to fight these lawsuits in court so that the plaintiffs and their attorneys encounter judicial skepticism and dismissal rather than the rewards of a quick and lucrative settlement.
In the current environment and in the wake of Dodd-Frank (and, before that, TARP) mandated rules requiring shareholder advisory votes on executive compensation, shareholder-plaintiffs have more aggressively challenged executive compensation decisions. In recent months, an active plaintiffs’ bar has filed a series of cases, which generally fall into three broad categories:
- “say-on-pay” litigation;
- litigation relating to annual proxy disclosure, particularly with respect to equity compensation plans and say-on-pay proposals; and
- litigation relating to Section 162(m) of the Internal Revenue Code.
While most of these challenges have failed on substantive or procedural grounds or both, some have been more successful, and the plaintiffs’ strategies continue to evolve. Notably, even unsuccessful claims can result in costly disruptions and/or reputational harm, especially where injunctions against annual shareholder meetings are threatened.
In this memorandum, we: