Posts Tagged ‘Shareholder proposals’

Proxy Access—a Decision Framework

Posted by Richard J. Sandler and Margaret E. Tahyar, Davis Polk & Wardwell LLP, on Tuesday March 3, 2015 at 9:19 am
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Editor’s Note: Richard J. Sandler is a partner at Davis Polk & Wardwell LLP and co-head of the firm’s global corporate governance group. Margaret E. Tahyar is a partner in the Financial Institutions Group at Davis Polk & Wardwell LLP. This post is based on a Davis Polk client memorandum.

Recent high-profile developments have thrust proxy access back onto the agenda for many U.S. public companies. Here is a framework for how to approach the topic.

Proxy access is back in the news and back on the agenda for many U.S. public companies. Four years after the DC Circuit invalidated the SEC’s proxy-access rule, we are seeing company-by-company private ordering with a vengeance, including a record number of Rule 14a-8 shareholder proposals in the current 2015 proxy season. Events have moved at high speed in the past few weeks, leading many companies to wonder whether they should be initiating their own approach to proxy access.

As we argued in 2009 in response to an earlier SEC proxy-access proposal, we believe that each company’s approach to proxy access should be grounded in a consideration of its particular circumstances. Despite recent high-profile adoptions of proxy-access procedures, we don’t believe that most U.S. public companies should, in knee-jerk fashion, be preparing to revise their bylaws proactively. We do, however, think that boards should be assessing on an ongoing basis the broader issues of board composition, tenure and refreshment, which are not only important in their own right but also relevant to potential vulnerability to proxy-access proposals. We also think that boards should communicate a willingness to exercise their discretion in considering all shareholder suggestions regarding board membership in order to assure shareholders of a means of expressing their views and to create a level playing field for shareholders.

…continue reading: Proxy Access—a Decision Framework

2015 Benchmark US Proxy Voting Policies FAQ

Posted by Carol Bowie, Institutional Shareholder Services Inc., on Thursday February 26, 2015 at 9:24 am
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Editor’s Note: Carol Bowie is Head of Americas Research at Institutional Shareholder Services Inc. (ISS). The following post relates to ISS’ 2015 Benchmark Proxy Voting Policies.

ISS is providing answers to frequently asked questions with regard to select policies and topics of interest for 2015:

Proxy Access Proposals

1. How will ISS recommend on proxy access proposals?

Drawing on the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission’s (SEC) decades-long effort to draft a market-wide rule allowing investors to place director nominees on corporate ballots, and reflecting feedback from a broad range of institutional investors and their portfolio companies, ISS is updating its policy on proxy access to generally align with the SEC’s formulation.

Old Recommendation: ISS supports proxy access as an important shareholder right, one that is complementary to other best-practice corporate governance features. However, in the absence of a uniform standard, proposals to enact proxy access may vary widely; as such, ISS is not setting forth specific parameters at this time and will take a case-by-case approach when evaluating these proposals.

Vote case-by-case on proposals to enact proxy access, taking into account, among other factors:

…continue reading: 2015 Benchmark US Proxy Voting Policies FAQ

SEC to Review Excluding Conflicting Proxy Proposals under Rule 14a-8

Posted by Kobi Kastiel, Co-editor, HLS Forum on Corporate Governance and Financial Regulation, on Tuesday February 10, 2015 at 9:02 am
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Editor’s Note: The following post comes to us from Robert B. Schumer, chair of the Corporate Department at Paul, Weiss, Rifkind, Wharton & Garrison LLP, and is based on a Paul Weiss client memorandum.

SEC Chair Mary Jo White has directed the Division of Corporation Finance (“Corporation Finance”) to review its position on Rule 14a-8(i)(9), which allows a company to exclude a shareholder proposal from the company’s proxy materials if it “conflicts” with the company’s own proposal to be submitted to shareholders at the same meeting. As a result of this direction, Corporation Finance will express “no views” on the application of Rule 14a-8(i)(9) this proxy season.

The catalyst for this development was a shareholder proposal submitted by proponent James McRitchie to Whole Foods Market, Inc., requesting that the company adopt “proxy access” procedures generally to allow one or more shareholders owning at least 3% of the company’s voting securities for three or more years to nominate up to 20% of the board of directors via the company’s proxy materials. Whole Foods countered with its own proposal that included significantly different share ownership and holding period thresholds and director nominee caps, but nevertheless was granted no-action relief by Corporation Finance, allowing it to exclude the McRitchie proposal under Rule 14a-8(i)(9) on the basis that it conflicted with Whole Foods’ proposal and the proposals would “present alternative and conflicting decisions for the Company’s shareholders that would likely result in inconsistent and ambiguous results”. Thereafter, Mr. McRitchie, the Council of Institutional Investors and others have called for the SEC to review its position on these “conflicts”, which SEC Chair White has now done. Corporation Finance has since effectively rescinded its no-action relief to Whole Foods and stated that it has no view of Rule 14a-8(i)(9).

…continue reading: SEC to Review Excluding Conflicting Proxy Proposals under Rule 14a-8

Advance Notice Bylaws: Trends and Challenges

Editor’s Note: Eduardo Gallardo is a partner focusing on mergers and acquisitions at Gibson, Dunn & Crutcher LLP. This post is based on a Gibson Dunn client alert by Mr. Gallardo, James Hallowell, Elizabeth Ising, Gillian McPhee, and Stephenie Gosnell Handler.

Shareholder activism continues to dominate the corporate landscape and attract daily headlines in the financial press. And, as the pace of activism accelerates in 2015, a number of legal battles over the last two years between companies and activists has put in the spotlight the permissible scope and function of advance notice bylaws—a term that we broadly define for these purposes to cover bylaw provisions establishing timing, procedural and informational requirements for shareholders seeking to present director nominations and other business proposals to a shareholder vote. [1]

A typical advance notice bylaw requires that shareholders submit to the corporate secretary notice of all director nominations and business to be put to a vote at an annual meeting within a thirty-day window that opens and closes on specified deadlines preceding the anniversary date of the prior year’s annual meeting date (or, less common, related proxy statement). Such a notice often must be accompanied by information about the nominee or business, and the proposing shareholder. This information is generally intended to enhance the board’s ability to advise shareholders regarding the nominee or proposal, as well as potential sources of conflict between the proponent and other shareholders.

…continue reading: Advance Notice Bylaws: Trends and Challenges

The State of Corporate Governance for 2015

Editor’s Note: Holly J. Gregory is a partner and co-global coordinator of the Corporate Governance and Executive Compensation group at Sidley Austin LLP. The following post is based on a Sidley update.

The balance of power between shareholders and boards of directors is central to the U.S. public corporation’s success as an engine of economic growth, job creation and innovation. Yet that balance is under significant and increasing strain. In 2015, we expect to see continued growth in shareholder activism and engagement, as well as in the influence of shareholder initiatives, including advisory proposals and votes. Time will tell whether, over the long term, tipping the balance to greater shareholder influence will prove beneficial for corporations, their shareholders and our economy at large. In the near term, there is reason to question whether increased shareholder influence on matters that the law has traditionally apportioned to the board is at the expense of other values that are key to the sustainability of healthy corporations. These concerns underlie the issues that will define the state of governance in 2015 and likely beyond:

…continue reading: The State of Corporate Governance for 2015

Responding to Corporate Political Disclosure Initiatives

Posted by Yaron Nili, Co-editor, HLS Forum on Corporate Governance and Financial Regulation, on Friday January 30, 2015 at 9:00 am
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Editor’s Note: The following post comes to us from Robert K. Kelner, partner in the Election and Political Law Practice Group at Covington & Burling LLP, and is based on a Covington Alert by Mr. Kelner, Keir D. Gumbs, and Zachary Parks. Recent work from the Program on Corporate Governance about political spending includes: Shining Light on Corporate Political Spending by Lucian Bebchuk and Robert J. Jackson, Jr. (discussed on the Forum here). Posts related to the SEC rulemaking petition on disclosure of political spending are available here.

Despite recent setbacks, efforts by activist groups to pressure companies to disclose details of their political activities are not going away. As these groups become increasingly sophisticated, 2015 looks to be their most active year to date. In fact, for the first time ever, the Center for Political Accountability plans to issue a report this year ranking the political spending disclosure practices of all 500 companies in the S&P 500 Index. This post highlights recent developments regarding corporate political spending disclosure efforts, looks ahead to what public companies can expect in the near future, and provides strategies and tips for those grappling with disclosure issues.

…continue reading: Responding to Corporate Political Disclosure Initiatives

ISS 2015 Independent Chair Policy FAQs

Posted by Carol Bowie, Institutional Shareholder Services Inc., on Monday January 26, 2015 at 9:16 am
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Editor’s Note: Carol Bowie is Head of Americas Research at Institutional Shareholder Services Inc. (ISS). This post relates to ISS independent chair voting policy guidelines for 2015.

1. How does the new approach differ from the previous approach?

Under the previous approach, ISS generally recommended for independent chair shareholder proposals unless the company satisfied all the criteria listed in the policy. Under the new approach, any single factor that may have previously resulted in a “For” or “Against” recommendation may be mitigated by other positive or negative aspects, respectively. Thus, a holistic review of all of the factors related to company’s board leadership structure, governance practices, and performance will be conducted under the new approach.

For example, under ISS’ previous approach, if the lead director of the company did not meet each one of the duties listed under the policy, ISS would have recommended For, regardless of the company’s board independence, performance, or otherwise good governance practices.

Under the new approach, in the example listed above, the company’s performance and other governance factors could mitigate concerns about the less-than-robust lead director role. Conversely, a robust lead director role may not mitigate concerns raised by other factors.

…continue reading: ISS 2015 Independent Chair Policy FAQs

What Sitting Commissioners Should and Shouldn’t Do

Posted by Tamar Frankel, Boston University School of Law, on Tuesday January 20, 2015 at 8:38 am
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Editor’s Note: Tamar Frankel is a Professor of Law at Boston University School of Law. This post relates to a paper by Commissioner Daniel Gallagher and Professor Joseph Grundfest, described on the Forum here. An earlier post about this paper by Professor Tamar Frankel, titled Did Commissioner Gallagher Violate SEC Rules?, is available on the Forum here. The Forum also featured last week (here) a joint statement by thirty-four senior corporate and securities law professors from seventeen leading law schools—including at Boston University, Chicago, Columbia, Cornell, Duke, George Washington, Georgetown, Harvard, Michigan, New York University, Northwestern, Stanford, Texas, UCLA, Vanderbilt, Virginia and Yale—opining that the paper’s allegations against Harvard and the SRP are meritless and urging the paper’s co-authors to withdraw these allegations. In addition, the Forum published earlier posts about the paper by Professor Grundfest (most recently here) and by Professor Jonathan Macey (most recently here), and replies by Professor Richard Painter and Harvey Pitt (available here and here) to Professor Frankel’s first post.

In an earlier post (available here), I expressed concerns about Commissioner Gallagher’s decision to issue (jointly with Professor Joseph Grundfest) a paper accusing Harvard University and the Shareholder Rights Project (SRP) of violating securities laws when they assisted investors submitting declassification proposals. Subsequently, a group of thirty-four senior corporate and securities law professors (including myself) issued a joint statement (available on the Forum here). In addition to opining that the allegations in the paper were meritless, the joint statement expressed concerns that a sitting SEC Commissioner has chosen to issue such allegations. However, others have taken the view that sitting Commissioners should be as free as other individuals to express opinions that specific individuals or organizations violated the law. I beg to differ, for the following reasons.

Sitting Commissioners may, and should be encouraged, to publicly discuss policy problems and issues. However, they should avoid publishing accusations against specific individuals or organizations, except as part of the SEC process. Publishing such accusations should not be an acceptable behavior by a sitting SEC Commissioners. That is even though during their tenure, SEC Commissioners are likely to disagree with others about potential legal accusations against specific parties.

So what is wrong with a publication of a Commissioner’s views about possible actions against Harvard University? Most persons could do the same with impunity. The answer is that the Commissioner is bestowed with power to participate in a decision to bring a suit by the SEC. None of us has this power. Yet, the Commissioner’s power is not granted for his own use. The power to participate in these decisions is bestowed on the Commissioner as a fiduciary for the purpose of serving this country and only pursuant to the processes of the Agency.

I hope that this Commissioner and future Commissioners will distinguish between expressing a policy opinion and issuing accusations of legal violations against specific parties. I hope that the discussions and disagreement on this issue will guide future Commissioners’ speeches: Please speak your mind. But do not give any whiff of accusations against specific parties except by following carefully and fully the Commission’s process. Thus, regardless of scholarly and legal arguments, and regardless of the motivation of the Commissioner’s actions, his inappropriate statements are at issue, and I am very sorry he made them.

If A SEC Commissioner Thinks Someone Is Violating the Securities Laws, He Should Say So

Posted by Richard W. Painter, University of Minnesota Law School, on Monday January 19, 2015 at 11:08 am
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Editor’s Note: Richard W. Painter is the S. Walter Richey Professor of Corporate Law at the University of Minnesota. This post is a reply to a post by Professor Tamar Frankel, titled Did Commissioner Gallagher Violate SEC Rules?, and available on the Forum here. This post and the post by Professor Frankel relate to a paper by Commissioner Daniel Gallagher and Professor Joseph A. Grundfest, described on the Forum here. The Forum featured last week (here) a joint statement by thirty-four senior corporate and securities law professors from seventeen leading law schools, including at Boston University, Chicago, Columbia, Cornell, Duke, George Washington, Georgetown, Harvard, Michigan, New York University, Northwestern, Stanford, Texas, UCLA, Vanderbilt, Virginia and Yale, opining that the paper’s allegations against Harvard and the SRP are meritless and urging the paper’s co-authors to withdraw these allegations. In addition to this joint statement, the Forum featured earlier posts about the paper by Professor Grundfest (most recently here), Professor Jonathan Macey (most recently here), Professor Tamar Frankel (here) and Harvey Pitt (here).

Although I have concerns about the impact of declassified corporate boards (boards that can be replaced by shareholders in a single election cycle) on corporate ethics, I will not weigh in on the substance of that controversy here. The more immediate question is whether a SEC Commissioner, in this case Daniel M. Gallagher, if he believes the federal securities laws are repeatedly being violated in connection with proposals submitted for a shareholder vote on this or any other issue, in this case by investors working with the Harvard Shareholder Rights Project, may and indeed should make a public statement to that effect, or whether the Commissioner is ethically required to remain silent, refer his concerns to the Enforcement Division of the Commission and wait for the official process to run its course. (See New York Times article.)

I am aware of no ethics rule that requires a SEC Commissioner to conceal his thoughts on such matters, and I know of many reasons why those charged with enforcing our laws should be free to speak their mind about private conduct they believe violates the law so long as their interpretation of the law is reasonable. For the police officer, it might be a speech to high school students or a similar venue. For the SEC Commissioner it might be a bar association speech or a publication. Those charged with enforcing the law have a right—and in some contexts an obligation—to tell the public what they believe the law requires.

This controversy arose because of a law review article (discussed on the Forum here) in which Gallagher and former SEC Commissioner Joseph Grundfest argued that over 100 proposals submitted by investors working with Harvard’s Shareholder Rights Project violated federal securities laws because they presented a misleading characterization of academic research on the impact of classified boards on corporate governance.

Some commentators have responded to this allegation on the merits, arguing that the proposals submitted by investors working with Harvard’s Shareholder Rights Project are not materially misleading in their characterization or research on classified boards or in any other way.

…continue reading: If A SEC Commissioner Thinks Someone Is Violating the Securities Laws, He Should Say So

On Ethics, Rhetoric and Civility: A Response to Professor Frankel

Editor’s Note: Harvey L. Pitt is Chief Executive Officer and Managing Director at Kalorama Partners, LLC and former Chairman of the U. S. Securities and Exchange Commission. This post is a reply to a post by Professor Tamar Frankel, titled Did Commissioner Gallagher Violate SEC Rules?, and available on the Forum here. This post and the post by Professor Frankel relate to a paper by Commissioner Daniel Gallagher and Professor Joseph A. Grundfest, described on the Forum here. The Forum featured last week (here) a joint statement by thirty-four senior corporate and securities law professors from seventeen leading law schools, including at Boston University, Chicago, Columbia, Cornell, Duke, George Washington, Georgetown, Harvard, Michigan, New York University, Northwestern, Stanford, Texas, UCLA, Vanderbilt, Virginia and Yale, opining that the paper’s allegations against Harvard and the SRP are meritless and urging the paper’s co-authors to withdraw these allegations. The Forum also published earlier posts about the paper by Professor Grundfest (most recently here) and by Professor Jonathan Macey (most recently here).

Editor’s Update: A statement that Mr. Pitt issued jointly with Mr. Brian Cartwright and Mr. Simon Lorne, expressing substantial agreement with the paper’s analysis and disagreeing with suggestions that Commissioner Gallagher’s co-authorship of the paper is inappropriate, is available on Business Wire here.

One of the many positive attributes of the Harvard Law School Forum on Corporate Governance and Financial Regulation (“Forum”) is that it is democratic. It accepts and posts submissions on its website reflecting a valuable diversity of opinion, philosophy and perspective. Nowhere is this better borne out than in the ongoing back-and-forth discussion regarding a recent, substantively valuable, paper (here) co-authored by SEC Commissioner Dan Gallagher and Stanford Law Professor (and former SEC Commissioner) Joseph Grundfest (summarized on the Forum here). The Paper was critiqued with valuable substantive observations by Professor Jonathan Macey (here, here, and here), some of which were, in turn, responded to by Professor Grundfest (here and here). I foolishly entered this debate on the Forum, acknowledging the valuable insights Professors Grundfest and Macey both were offering, recommending that their continuing debate, and any other contributors to it, focus on the important substance of the Gallagher/Grundfest Paper (here). I had hoped thereby that we all might be spared from certain forms of future commentary (especially of a personal nature) that strayed from the Paper’s and Professor Macey’s scholarly substantive analysis.

In my Forum post, I confirmed the correctness of the Gallagher/Grundfest Paper’s unassailable core observation—irrespective of whether any particular proposal (or the proponent of that proposal) espousing the elimination of staggered boards in fact violated the SEC’s proxy fraud rules—those antifraud rules, by their terms, undoubtedly apply to proponents of shareholder proposals as well as to public companies’ proxy solicitation materials. In submitting my post, I suppose I anticipated that—no matter how balanced a presentation I might endeavor to offer—if emotion were to become a substitute for analysis—I might soon be swept up in any subsequent cross-fire. What I did not expect, however, was that a new voice—belonging to Boston University School of Law’s Professor Tamar Frankel, one of the Country’s pre-eminent legal experts on the application of the federal securities laws to mutual funds and other investment companies (as well as those who advise and manage collective portfolios), would enter the fray, and question the accuracy of my response to a newspaper reporter about prior precedent for a sitting SEC Commissioner to express his views on whether current/recent activities might violate of the law (here).

…continue reading: On Ethics, Rhetoric and Civility: A Response to Professor Frankel

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