The SEC has issued its much-anticipated Staff Legal Bulletin on two rules impacting shareholder proposals. You can find the SLB here. The SLB looks a bit more benign than some had feared; in other words, it’s got some bad news, but the good news is that it’s not as bad as some feared.

2162651915_df13af7594_zRule 14a-8(i)(9) – Conflicting Proposals

The SLB deals with two areas of SEC Rule 14a-8 – the Rule governing shareholder proposals. The first area relates to Rule 14a-8(i)(9), which addresses what happens when a shareholder proposal “directly conflicts” with a company proposal. This issue reared its head during the 2015 proxy season, when the SEC withdrew a no-action letter it had granted to Whole Foods permitting it to exclude a shareholder proposal on proxy access and, at the direction of SEC Chair White, declared a moratorium on issuing no-action letters under Rule 14a-8(i)(9).


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Something shocking happened at the SEC yesterday.  SEC Chair Mary Jo White directed the SEC Staff to review its long-standing position on when a shareholder proposal conflicts with a company proposal and may be excluded from the proxy statement.  As a result, the SEC’s Division of Corporation Finance withdrew a no-action letter that had given Whole Foods the green light to exclude a shareholder proposal on proxy access by including its own (less shareholder-friendly) proposal on the subject.  Corp Fin also said that it would not be issuing any additional no-action letters under the rule in question. It’s worth noting that these actions were taken at a sensitive time, as calendar-year companies approach peak proxy season and a major investor campaign is under way to impose proxy access upon companies that have been resisting it.

The SEC’s shareholder proposal rules are very complex, and I won’t go into details here.  However, as a general matter, the rules lay out the process by which eligible shareholders can submit proposals for inclusion in a company’s proxy statement.  Relevant here is that (1) the rules provide certain conditions under which a company can exclude a proposal and (2) companies can avail themselves of a “no-action” process to get the SEC’s permission to exclude a proposal if the conditions are satisfied.  It’s worth noting that the no-action process isn’t dispositive; the proponent or the company can take the matter to court, and there are usually a couple of cases each year in which that happens.


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