During the 2014 proxy season, governance-related shareholder proposals continued to be common at U.S. public companies, including proposals calling for declassified boards, majority voting in director elections, elimination of supermajority requirements, separation of the roles of the CEO and chair, the right to call special meetings and the right to act by written consent. While the number of these proposals was down from 2012 and 2013 levels, this decline related entirely to fewer proposals being received by large-cap companies, likely due to the diminishing number of large companies that have not already adopted these practices. Smaller companies, at which these practices are less common, have not seen a similar decline and, if anything, are increasingly being targeted with these types of proposals.
Posts Tagged ‘Sullivan & Cromwell’
On June 10, 2014, the Board of Governors of the Federal Reserve System (the “Federal Reserve”), the Office of the Comptroller of the Currency, the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation (collectively, the “Banking Agencies”) and the Securities and Exchange Commission (the “SEC”) released substantially identical Frequently Asked Questions (“FAQs”) addressing six topics regarding the implementation of section 13 of the Bank Holding Company Act of 1956, as amended, commonly known as the “Volcker Rule.”
Following the Delaware Court of Chancery’s decision in July 2013 upholding the validity of exclusive forum bylaws, a number of corporations, including over two dozen S&P 500 companies, amended their bylaws to include these provisions, and the provisions were commonly included in the charters or bylaws of companies in initial public offerings. Many public companies, however, determined to take a wait-and-see approach, in order to assess whether non-Delaware courts would enforce the bylaw and whether companies that adopted the bylaw received negative investor feedback in the 2014 proxy season or otherwise.
In a summary judgment opinion issued on April 8, the Delaware Court of Chancery (VC Laster) held that in a change of control case governed by enhanced scrutiny, directors and officers could incur personal liability for a breach of their duty of loyalty if it is established that they acted unreasonably in conducting the sale process and allowed interests other than the pursuit of the best value reasonably available, i.e. an improper motive, to influence their decisions. The Court expressly rejected arguments that directors (or officers) could only be found to have acted in bad faith and thereby be personally liable for a breach of the duty of loyalty if it were determined that they were motivated by an intent to do harm or had consciously disregarded known obligations and utterly failed to attempt to obtain the best sale price, as articulated by the Delaware Supreme Court in Lyondell Chemical Company v. Ryan. Applying the new standard to the case before it, the Court concluded that the evidence against the director defendants was not sufficient to impose personal liability under the new standard, but that the evidence was sufficient to proceed to trial against the officers on the same theory.
On March 20, 2014, the Federal Reserve announced the summary results of the Dodd-Frank Act 2014 supervisory stress tests for the 30 largest U.S. banking organizations. The results demonstrate the sharply enhanced capital strength and resiliency of the U.S. banking system. Under an “extreme stress scenario”, these U.S. banking organizations could absorb an extraordinary downturn in “pre-provision net revenues” and an unprecedented level of loan losses and still maintain capital levels well above minimum regulatory requirements and almost 40% above the actual capital ratios in 2009.
In Lawson v. FMR LLC, No. 12-3 (Mar. 4, 2014), the U.S. Supreme Court clarified the scope of whistleblower protection provided by the Sarbanes-Oxley Act of 2002 (“SOX”), holding that employees of private contractors and subcontractors of public companies are protected by the whistleblower provision set forth in 18 U.S.C. § 1514A of the Act. The Court, acknowledging that the language of the Act is ambiguous, interpreted it to allow persons employed by non-public contractors to public companies—such as lawyers or accounting firms—to bring whistleblower claims under the Act. In a strong dissent, Justice Sotomayor objected to the “stunning reach” of this interpretation. The majority opinion, responding to that criticism, cited “various limiting principles” proposed by the plaintiffs and Solicitor General, which employers will need to rely on in the future. Among other things, the “limiting principles” include that the types of contractors whose employees could make use of SOX are those “whose performance will take place over a significant period of time,” and that an employee of a contractor would only be able to invoke SOX as to complaints arising out of the contractor’s “fulfilling its role as contractor for the public company, not the contractor in some other capacity.” Ultimately, however, the Court declined to address the precise bounds of § 1514A, finding that the whistleblower claims at issue fell squarely within the “mainstream application” of the statute, as both plaintiffs claimed retaliation after reporting allegedly fraudulent activity that plainly implicated mutual funds’ shareholders.
China Natural Resources, Inc. (“CHNR”), a natural resources company based in the People’s Republic of China (the “PRC”) with shares listed on the NASDAQ Capital Market, recently completed the spin-off (the “Spin-Off”) and listing by introduction (the “Listing by Introduction”) on The Stock Exchange of Hong Kong Limited (the “Hong Kong Stock Exchange”) of its wholly-owned subsidiary, Feishang Anthracite Resources Limited (“Feishang Anthracite”), which operated CHNR’s coal mining and related businesses prior to the Spin-Off.  S&C represented CHNR and Feishang Anthracite in connection with the Spin-Off and Listing by Introduction, which is the first-of-its-kind where a U.S.-listed company successfully spun off and listed shares of its businesses on the Hong Kong Stock Exchange, including advising on the U.S. and Hong Kong legal issues that arose in connection with this transaction.
On March 5, 2014, the U.S. Supreme Court heard oral argument in Halliburton Co. v. Erica P. John Fund, Inc., No. 13-317, which presents whether to overrule or significantly limit plaintiffs’ ability to rely on the legal presumption that each would-be class member in a securities fraud class action relied on the statements challenged as fraudulent in the lawsuit. Without this so-called fraud-on-the-market presumption of classwide reliance, putative class action plaintiffs would face substantial barriers in maintaining securities fraud class actions. The Court’s decision in Halliburton, which is expected by June 2014, could lead to a significant change in the conduct of securities class actions. Even if the Court ultimately retains some formulation of the fraud-on-the-market presumption of reliance, the Court could increase defendants’ ability to contest what in practice has evolved into a virtually irrebuttable presumption.
On February 18, 2014, the Board of Governors of the Federal Reserve System (the “FRB”) approved a final rule (the “Final Rule”) implementing certain of the “enhanced prudential standards” mandated by Section 165 of the Dodd-Frank Wall Street Reform and Consumer Protection Act (the “Dodd-Frank Act” or “Dodd-Frank”). The Final Rule applies the enhanced prudential standards to (i) U.S. bank holding companies (“U.S. BHCs”) with $50 billion (and in some cases, $10 billion) or more in total consolidated assets and (ii) foreign banking organizations (“FBOs”) with (x) a U.S. banking presence, through branches, agencies or depository institution subsidiaries, and (y) depending on the standard, certain designated amounts of assets worldwide, in the United States or in U.S. non-branch assets. The Final Rule’s provisions are the most significant, detailed and prescriptive for the largest U.S. BHCs and the FBOs with the largest U.S. presence—those with $50 billion or more in total consolidated assets and, in the case of FBOs, particularly (and with increasing stringency) for FBOs with combined U.S. assets of $50 billion or more or U.S. non-branch assets of $50 billion or more.
Earlier this evening [January 14, 2014], the Board of Governors of the Federal Reserve System, Office of the Comptroller of the Currency (the “OCC”), Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation (such three agencies together, the “Banking Agencies”), Securities and Exchange Commission, and Commodity Futures Trading Commission (the “CFTC” and, collectively, the “Agencies”) issued an interim final rule (the “Interim Final Rule”) regarding the treatment of certain collateralized debt obligations backed by trust preferred securities (“TruPS-backed CDOs”) under the final rule (the “Final Rule”) implementing Section 619 of the Dodd-Frank Wall Street Reform and Consumer Protection Act (the “Dodd-Frank Act”), commonly known as the “Volcker Rule.” The Volcker Rule imposes broad restrictions on proprietary trading and investing in and sponsoring private equity and hedge funds (“covered funds”) by banking organizations and their affiliates.