D.C. Circuit Vacates Proxy Access Rules, Blasts the SEC

D.C. Circuit Vacates Proxy Access Rules, Blasts the SEC

For many years, one of the fundamental goals of shareholder rights activists has "proxy access," which would require corporations to include shareholder nominated board candidates on the company's proxy ballots. Last year, in the wake of the Dodd-Frank Act, the SEC promulgated rules facilitating shareholder director nominations under certain circumstances. However, on July 22, 2011, in an opinion that called the SEC's rulemaking "arbitrary and capricious" and reflected sharp criticism of the agency, a three-judge panel of the District of Columbia Court of Appeals struck down the SEC's rule. The opinion, which can be found here, makes for some interesting reading and raises some potentially significant implications.

Background

Shareholder activists have been lobbying for proxy access for years. As part of the sweeping financial reform encompassed in the Dodd-Frank Act, Congress provided the SEC in Section 971 of the Act with authority to promulgate proxy access rules. On August 25, 2011, the SEC adopted rules implementing this provision. Rule 14a-11 would have provided shareholders holding at least three percent of the voting power of a company's securities who have held their shares at least three years with the right to have their director nominees included in the company's proxy materials.

However, on September 29, 2010, the Business Roundtable and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce filed a lawsuit challenging the proxy access rules. On October 4, 2010, the SEC issued a stay of the rule's effectiveness pending the court's review. 

The July 22 Opinion

In an opinion written by Judge Douglas Ginsberg for a three-judge panel, the D.C. Circuit held that the SEC has acted "arbitrarily and capriciously" in adopting the proxy access rules. In language that was presented a particularly harsh rebuke to the SEC, the court said that:

We agree with petitioners and hold the Commission acted arbitrarily and capriciously for having failed once again ...adequately to assess the economic effects of a new rule. Here the Commission inconsistently and opportunistically framed the costs and benefits of the rule; failed adequately to quantify the certain costs or to explain why those costs could not be quantified; neglected to support its predictive judgments; contradicted itself; and failed to respond to substantial problems raised by commentators.

The court seemed particularly concerned with the costs companies would incur as incumbent directors sought to defeat the shareholders' electoral challenge, and with the SEC's supposed failure to take those costs into account. The court said "although it might be possible that a board, consistent with its fiduciary duties, might forego expending resources to oppose a shareholder nominee - for example, if it believes the cost of opposition would exceed the cost to the company of the board's preferred candidate losing the election, discounted by the probability of that happening - the Commission has presented no evidence that such forbearance is ever seen in practice. "

The court was also critical of the SEC for failing to take into account the likelihood that the proxy access process might be used by shareholders with special interests to pursue their own agendas, at the expense of other shareholders. The court said that "the Commission failed to respond to comments arguing that investors with a special interest, such as unions and state and local governments whose interests in jobs may well be greater than their interest in share value, can be expected to pursue self-interested objectives rather than the goal of maximizing shareholder value, and will likely cause the companies to incur costs even when their nominee is unlikely to be elected."

The court granted the business groups' petition and vacated the SEC rules.

Discussion

Both the court's holding and the language it used have important implications for proxy access and for the SEC's future rulemaking efforts.

With respect to the SEC's proposed rule, the agency now has to decide whether to appeal the D.C. Circuit's ruling or to try remedial efforts to try to address the D.C. Circuit's  concern. The prospects for addressing all of the court's concerns seem daunting. As a former SEC general counsel quoted in the July 23, 2011 Wall Street Journal article about the decision (here) put it, "given the number of objections the court had, the amount of work would be very substantial and it may just be impossible."  It may be that at least this latest effort to implement proxy access has hit an insurmountable obstacle.

But beyond the proxy access question, the D.C. Circuit's decision has important implications for SEC rulemaking generally. The court went out of its way to rebuke the SEC for its repeated failure to address legal requirements for the agency's rulemaking. According to the Journal article, the July 22 opinion represents "the fourth time in recent years the same appeals court has invalidated an agency rule on similar grounds."

The D.C. Circuit's criticism of the agency's rulemaking and its insistence on a high bar for rulemaking compliance comes at a time when the SEC is laboring under a significant rulemaking burden due to the requirements of the Dodd-Frank Act and at a time when the agency is also coming under significant budgetary constraints. The SEC will have to move forward to try to meet the Dodd-Frank rulemaking requirements with awareness of the harsh scrutiny its rules will face in the appellate courts.

Shareholder activists quoted in the various news articles commenting on the D.C. Circuit's opinion suggest they will continue to try to press ahead on proxy access. It remains to be seen how the SEC will respond. But for now, proxy access has been tabled, and it may be some time before this or another initiative resuscitates the initiative.  

The Morrison & Foerster law firm's July 22, 2011 memo discussing the D.C. Circuit's opinion can be found here. The statement of the U.S. Chamber and the Business Roundtable about the opinion can be found here. Special thanks to the several loyal readers who sent me links about the Court's opinion.

Meanwhile, Back at the FDIC: Although the standard current line on the continuing wave of bank failures is that the FDIC is winding down its bank closure efforts, the FDIC does not seem to have gotten the memo. This past Friday evening, the FDIC closed three more banks, bringing the July 2011 month to date total number of closures to 10, after the agency had closed only nine banks in the months of May and June combined. The latest closures brings the year-to-date total number of bank failures to 58, and with the latest closures signs area that the number of bank failures could continue to mount for some time to come.

Another thing that is striking about the YTD bank closures is how many of the closures still involve Georgia banks. So far this year, 16 Georgia banks have failed. This is after several years of massive numbers of bank failures in the state. You do start to wonder how there could be any banks left in Georgia at this point.

Morrison: Where is the Place of the Transaction?: As explained in the U.S. Supreme Court's opinion in Morrison v. National Australia Bank, Section 10 of the '34 Act and Rule 10b-5 apply  to "transactions in securities listed on domestic exchanges, and domestic transactions in other securities." The second of the two prongs in this standard requires courts to determine whether or not the disputed transaction is or is not "domestic," which leave courts to try to determine where the transaction took place.

In the Quail Cruise ship case (refer here, second item), the Eleventh Circuit recently held that because the share transaction allegedly "closed" in Miami, the plaintiffs had adequately alleged that the transaction was a domestic transaction. In a more elaborate opinion, discussed here, Southern District of New York Judge Barbara Jones held in the SEC enforcement action against Goldman Sachs associate Fabrice Toure that the place of the transaction is to be determined based on the place where the transaction counterparties incurred "irrevocable liability" to take or sell the securities in question.

As discussed in Nate Raymond's July 21, 2011 Am Law Litigation Daily article (here), last Thursday, Judge Jones quoted her own prior opinion in holding that the plaintiff in the civil action against Goldman Sachs in connection with the infamous Timberwolf CDO (to which an unfortunate Goldman associate referred in an email as "one shitty deal")  had not adequately alleged that the security sale involved a domestic transaction. A copy of Judge Jones' opinion can be found here.

In holding that the plaintiffs had not adequately alleged that the transaction in question took place in the U.S., Judge Jones said that in order to meet the requirements of Morrison's second prong and establish that a transaction took place in the U.S., the plaintiff "must allege that the parties incurred irrevocable liability to purchase or sell the security in the United States." Judge Jones dismissed the plaintiff's complaint but with leave to attempt to replead the transactional allegations in order to establish that their transaction was cognizable under the federal securities laws.

Through sheer repetition, Judge Jones's "irrevocable liability" test may become the de facto standard for determining whether or not a transaction has taken place in the United States.  On the other hand, the Eleventh Circuit's recent (albeit somewhat unexplained) pronouncement that the place of the transaction closing is sufficient may present an alternative test on which parties may seek to rely. 

Choice of Law: In a prior post, I noted that choice of law may be one of the sleeper issues for determining insurance coverage. I specifically discussed the potential merits of the incorporation of a choice of law clause within the D&O insurance policy.

In a July 20, 2011 post on the Delaware Business Litigation Report blog, Edward M. McNally of the Morris James law firm takes a look at the question of choice of law in the context of breach of contract disputes, and he reviews the advantages of the incorporation into business contracts of choice of law provisions. His article specifically raises the questions that can arise in the D&O insurance context in the absence of a choice of law provision in the policy.

The Plot Thickens: When discussing the allegations many Chinese companies are raising that the assertions of accounting impropriety against the companies are the product of the fevered and self-interested imaginings of short sellers, I compared the situation to the Spy vs. Spy feature in  Mad Magazine. It turns out that I had no idea of how much skullduggery might be involved.

In a July 22, 2011 Thomson Reuters News & Insight article (here), Alison Frankel details the allegations and counter allegations that are flying in connection with online securities analyst and short-seller Muddy Waters, which has been at the center of a number of the assertions of financial impropriety involving Chinese companies. Apparently an anonymous online source has posted phony content purporting to show that Muddy Waters was the target of an SEC enforcement action for fraud and was forced to pay over $240 million for improper profits on stock manipulation. Another individual (who called himself "Shaun Coffey" in possible reference to famous former plaintiffs' securities attorney Sean Coffey) is out trying to present himself as a Muddy Waters employee and attempting to use threats to try to blackmail Chinese companies.

Meanwhile, the July 24, 2011 New York Times had an article entitled "China to Wall Street: The Side-Door Shuffle" (here) that tells the story of how Rino International, a Chinese company, obtained its U.S. listing through a reverse merger. The article also describes how a research report from the Muddy Waters firm first raised questions about the company, following which the company's share price collapsed and lawsuits ensued. You can certainly see how there might be some people who don't like the Muddy Waters firm.

I will say that since she moved over to Thomson Reuters, Frankel has consistently been cranking out top quality articles and at an impressive rate. I marvel both at how she continues to come up with interesting story topics and how she cranks out an astonishing number of interesting and entertaining articles. Alison, everyone here at The D&O Diary salutes you.

Read other items of interest from the world of directors & officers liability, with occasional commentary, at the D&O Diary, a blog by Kevin LaCroix.

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