In December 2014, I posted my concerns with the law on insider trading.  Perhaps someone read it, because the following year, H.R. 1625, the “Insider Trading Prohibition Act,” was introduced in the House of Representatives.  I regarded it as imperfect but a start.   Of course, it went nowhere, and the state of the law has not changed.

Well, it’s back – sort of – and may have a bit of life.   H.R. 2534, with the same title as in 2015, was introduced by Congressman Jim Himes (D-CT), who introduced the 2015 bill, and co-sponsored by Carolyn Maloney (D-NY) and Denny Heck (D-WA).  What’s new about the bill is that it was approved – unanimously – by the Financial Services Committee in May.  That probably doesn’t mean anything, as Congress seems to be the place where legislation goes to die, but I suppose anything is possible.

Like its predecessor, it’s a start.  But I still think it’s imperfect.  The title of the first section is promising: “Prohibition Against Trading Securities While In Possession Of Material, Nonpublic Information.”  Sounds good, right?  The mere possession of MNPI means you can’t trade.  Wrong.  The text of the section gives the lie to its title.  Specifically, the prohibition exists only if the person trading “knows, or recklessly disregards, that such information has been obtained wrongfully, or that such purchase or sale would constitute a wrongful use of such information.”  In other words, (1) the bill seems to say it’s OK to trade while in possession of inside information as long as the information was not known to have been obtained wrongfully or is being used wrongfully (whatever the latter means), and (2) it would get us right back into the very issues that make the present state of the law so confusing.  You can’t trade in a stock if you know (or should have known) that the MNPI was wrongfully obtained, but what if you don’t know or have no reason to know it was wrongfully obtained?  If someone suggests that you buy (or sell) a particular stock, what is your duty of inquiry, and where does it end?

Continue Reading There STILL ought to be a law

For those of you who’ve heard me sing, rest easy – I’m not going to break into “As Time Goes By.”  But the lyric I’ve quoted in the title is worth noting.  In fact, it was noted, albeit in substance rather than form, in the June 18 opinion of the Delaware Supreme Court in Marchand v. Barnhill.  The opinion, written by soon-to-retire Chief Justice Leo Strine (more on that below) addressed two fundamental matters – director independence and the board’s oversight responsibilities.

The case resulted from a listeria outbreak caused by contaminated ice cream.  (The thought of contaminated ice cream is too upsetting, but that’s for another day.)  The key holdings referred to above were as follows:

  • Director Independence: The trial court had dismissed the complaint for failing to make a pre-suit demand on the board, based on its conclusion that the a majority of the board – albeit the slimmest majority of one director – was independent. However, when the Supreme Court considered the background of that one director, it determined that he was not independent.  Thus, the slim majority went away.  The relevant facts included that the director had worked for the company in question for 28 years, including as its CFO and a director, and that the company’s founding family had helped to raise more than $450,000 for a local college that named a building after the director.  The fact that the director had supported a proposal that the founding family opposed – i.e., separating the chair and CEO positions – was deemed by the Supreme Court to be insufficient to support a finding of independence.
  • Board Oversight: The Delaware Supreme Court found that the board had breached its fiduciary duty of loyalty by failing to oversee a significant risk – product contamination – leading to the conclusion that the board had demonstrated bad faith. As is usually the case, Chief Justice Strine says it better than I possibly could.  Citing the landmark 1996 Caremark decision, he writes:

Continue Reading The fundamental things apply…

“Where was the board?”  It’s a question we hear whenever something – anything – goes wrong at a public company.  The question has been asked in all sorts of circumstances, ranging from failing jet systems, to networks being hacked, to harassment allegations, and so on.

Don’t get me wrong – there are most assuredly cases in which the question needs to be asked. Without naming names, there have been numerous instances where it seems apparent (and in some cases has been proven) that the board elected not to see or hear evil and thus hadn’t a clue that there was a problem, and other cases where the board created or fostered a rotten culture that seemed to beg for problems.  However, what concerns me is that society at large seems to think that the board is or should be responsible for every sin of commission or omission by the company.  And that just seems wrong.

Boards are charged with oversight.  And while the definition of that word can be difficult to pin down, it seems clear that the board was never supposed to be a guarantor.  Yet that’s precisely where we are headed – or perhaps where we’ve arrived.  You even see it in articles and treatises by governance nerds who should know better: “The board should ensure that…”.  Boards cannot “ensure” anything.  They are part-time consultants, and even the best boards cannot possibly know everything that a company does.

As a result, we’ve seen an upswing in suggestions as to how to help boards, including the following: Continue Reading The board is dead! Long live the [to be provided]!

As we previously reported, the SEC has adopted amendments to the public company disclosure rules intended to further streamline and simplify the reporting process for public companies. The amendments also significantly change the process for requesting and renewing confidential treatment of exhibits to SEC filings. Most of these amendments became effective on May 2, 2019. Below is a brief summary of several of the significant changes that resulted from these amendments.

Amendments to Form 10-K, Form 10-Q, and Form 8-K Cover Pages

Companies must now list on the cover page of Form 10-Q and Form 8-K each class of securities registered under Section 12(b) of the Exchange Act, the trading symbol, and the exchange(s) on which the securities trade, similar to the current requirements for the Form 10-K cover page. The cover page of Form 10-K was also modified to require the inclusion of the trading symbol for each class of registered securities, which previously was not required to be provided. The new Form 10-K cover page will also no longer include the checkbox related to delinquent filers under Section 16.

Description of Material Properties

Item 102 of Regulation S-K was revised to encourage disclosure regarding only material properties, plants and mines. The new rules make clear that it is acceptable for a company to determine that none of its properties are material for purposes of Item 102. However, the amendments do not alter disclosure requirements for companies engaged in the real estate, mining, and oil and gas industries, in which physical properties may be of particular importance. Companies in these industries must continue to comply with the existing instructions to Item 102 and applicable SEC industry guides governing their industries. Continue Reading Streamlined and modernized: new FAST Act rules become effective

Four years ago, I commented on the then-recent announcement that Jamie Dimon, Chairman and CEO of JP Morgan Chase, was battling cancer.  At the time, Dimon noted that he had struggled with whether the company should disclose his illness.

It’s a struggle that executives, companies, and their securities lawyers face when a CEO is diagnosed with a serious illness, or when there is some other arguably personal news about the CEO.  With apologies for quoting myself, here is an excerpt from my 2015 posting:

“It’s a very challenging issue for several reasons.  First, there isn’t any rule – or even any literature (at least to my knowledge) – that tells us whether and what to disclose in this situation.  So when a client says, “show me the rule that says we have to disclose this,” there’s nothing to show.  Second, and more important, the issue pits the need to disclose against information that is quintessentially personal.  It’s also not just an issue between the executive and the company; often, the executive’s family and, possibly, his/her medical team and others are equally involved.  And even when there’s agreement to disclose, it’s very difficult to know what to say about the prognosis, if and when the executive can return to work, and so on.”

Continue Reading In sickness and in health 2.0

There probably aren’t too many subjects nerdier than corporate minutes.  Lawyers (among others) tend to focus on exciting (dare I say sexy?) matters like M&A, activism, and bet-the-company litigation. Those and other topics are surely exciting, but failing to pay attention to minutes can cost big time. Like it or not, minutes are among the few pieces of evidence – sometimes the only evidence – that boards and committees have properly executed their fiduciary duties.  Did the board give a matter due consideration? Did the directors ask the right questions?  Any questions? Did they consider the risks as well as the benefits of an action or of inaction?  If these and other questions are not answered by reading the minutes, they may not be answerable at all.

Failing to have good minutes can have serious adverse consequences.  Aside from the potential liability and reputational damage associated with a failure to fulfill fiduciary obligations, transactions can be voided, and so on. And in one recent case, the Delaware Supreme Court found that in the absence of minutes, plaintiffs making a “books and records” demand on a company would be able to see emails between directors, among other things.  (You can find my prior posting on that case here.)  If that doesn’t put butterflies in your stomach, nothing will. Continue Reading Goldilocks and the three sets of minutes

As our readers know, I am irritated by Congress’s penchant for naming bills so as to create nifty acronyms. And for including provisions that have nothing to do with the name or the acronym.  However, I can better put up with these irritants when the legislation – and SEC regulations implementing the legislation – create a good result.

Such is the case with the FAST Act. It stands for “Fixing America’s Surface Transportation Act,” and despite its acronymic name and its questionable connection to securities law, it contained some provisions to make disclosures more effective and the process by which disclosures are made somewhat easier.

These benefits were engraved in stone by the SEC on March 20, when it adopted a series of rules under the FAST Act. The rules provide for the following types of relief: Continue Reading Disclosure effectiveness on a FAST track (get it?)

SEC Rule 701 exempts non-reporting companies from registering securities offered or sold to employees, officers, directors, partners, trustees, consultants, and advisors under compensatory benefit plans or other compensation agreements. As discussed in an earlier post, under the Economic Growth, Regulatory Relief, and Consumer Protection Act (EGRRCPA) passed by Congress in 2018, the threshold for the aggregate sales price of securities sold during any consecutive 12-month period that triggers additional disclosure requirements under Rule 701 was increased from $5 million to $10 million.   What may have gone unnoticed was that the SEC has adopted final rules to implement EGRRCPA and has published a concept release “soliciting comment on possible ways to modernize rules related to compensatory arrangements in light of the significant evolution in both the types of compensatory offerings and the composition of the workforce since the Commission last substantively amended these rules in 1999.”

Continue Reading The SEC modernizes exempt compensatory offerings (with more changes in the works)

On February 19, 2019, the Securities and Exchange Commission voted to propose a new rule that would expand the availability of the “testing-the-waters” provisions that enable eligible companies to engage in certain communications to gauge institutional investor interest in a proposed IPO. Currently, only companies that qualify as “emerging growth companies” or “EGCs” are eligible to test the water. The new rule and related amendments would expand the availability of the provisions to all types of issuers, including investment companies.

The purpose of the testing-the-waters provisions is to allow potential issuers to gauge market interest in a possible initial public offering or other registered securities offering by discussing the offering with certain investors, including qualified institutional buyers (“QIBs”) and institutional accredited investors (“IAIs”), prior to filing a registration statement. SEC Chairman Jay Clayton said that “[t]he proposed rules would allow companies to more effectively consult with investors and better identify information that is important to them in advance of a public offering.” The proposed rules and related amendments are intended to give more issuers a cost-effective and flexible means of communicating with institutional investors regarding contemplated offerings and evaluating market interest.

Continue Reading Testing-the-waters provisions to be available to bigger fish

As securities lawyers know, disclosure is generally regarded as the best disinfectant.  However, in a recent enforcement action, the SEC determined that disclosure is not always enough.  Specifically, when it comes to internal controls over financial reporting, or ICFR, companies need to actually fix the problems they disclose.

In the action, the SEC cited four companies for failing to maintain ICFR for periods ranging from seven to 10 consecutive annual reporting periods.  While each of the companies disclosed material weaknesses in ICFR, it took them months or years to remediate the weaknesses – even after being contacted by the SEC!  (I don’t usually use exclamation points in my postings, but this calls for an exception to my usual policy.)  As noted in the SEC’s press release on the action, “[c]ompanies cannot hide behind disclosures as a way to meet their ICFR obligations. Disclosure of material weaknesses is not enough without meaningful remediation.”

Others have noted that the cases in question are outliers.  That’s undoubtedly true — at least I hope so, because it’s hard to imagine hearing from the SEC and doing nothing about it, much less over a period of years).  However, the moral of the story remains unchanged: if you’re going to disclose an ICFR problem, you better fix it, too.