SEC Proposes To Tighten Shareholder Proposal Thresholds

by Laura Anthony, Esq. on November 26, 2019 in Uncategorized

As anticipated on November 5, 2019, the SEC issued two highly controversial rule proposals.  The first is to amend Exchange Act rules to regulate proxy advisors.  The second is to amend Securities Exchange Act Rule 14a-8(b) to increase the ownership threshold requirements required for shareholders to submit and re-submit proposals to be included in a company’s proxy statement.  The ownership thresholds were last amended in 1998 and the resubmission rules have been in place since 1954.  Together the new rules would represent significant changes to the proxy disclosure and solicitation process and shareholder rights to include matters on a company’s proxy statement.  Not surprisingly, given the debate surrounding this topic, each of the SEC Commissioners issued statements on the proposed rule changes.

I am in support of both rules.  This blog addresses the proposed rule changes related to shareholder proposals.  Shareholder proposals, and the process for including or excluding such proposals in a company’s proxy statement, have been the subject of debate for years.  The rules have not been amended in decades and during that time, shareholder activism has shifted.  Main Street investors tend to invest more through mutual funds and ETF’s, and most shareholder proposals come from a small group of investors which need to meet a very low bar for doing so.

In October 2017, the U.S. Department of the Treasury issued a report to President Trump entitled “A Financial System That Creates Economic Opportunities; Capital Markets” in which the Treasury department reported on laws and regulations that, among other things, inhibit economic growth and vibrant financial markets.  The Treasury Report stated that “[A]ccording to one study, six individual investors were responsible for 33% of all shareholder proposals in 2016, while institutional investors with a stated social, religious, or policy orientation were responsible for 38%. During the period between 2007 and 2016, 31% of all shareholder proposals were a resubmission of a prior proposal.”  Among the many recommendations by the Treasury Department was to amend Rule 14a-8 to substantially increase both the submission and resubmission threshold requirements.  I note that a 2018 study found that 5 individuals accounted for 78% of all the proposals submitted by individual shareholders.

Background – Current Rule 14a-8

The regulation of corporate law rests primarily within the power and authority of the states. However, for public companies, the federal government imposes various corporate law mandates including those related to matters of corporate governance. While state law may dictate that shareholders have the right to elect directors, the minimum and maximum time allowed for notice of shareholder meetings, and what matters may be properly considered by shareholders at an annual meeting, Section 14 of the Securities Exchange Act of 1934 (“Exchange Act”) and the rules promulgated thereunder govern the proxy process itself for publicly reporting companies. Federal proxy regulations give effect to existing state law rights to receive notice of meetings and for shareholders to submit proposals to be voted on by fellow shareholders.

All companies with securities registered under the Exchange Act are subject to the Exchange Act proxy regulations found in Section 14 and its underlying rules. Section 14 of the Exchange Act and its rules govern the timing and content of information provided to shareholders in connection with annual and special meetings with a goal of providing shareholders meaningful information to make informed decisions, and a valuable method to allow them to participate in the shareholder voting process without the necessity of being physically present. As with all disclosure documents, and especially those with the purpose of evoking a particular active response, such as buying stock or returning proxy cards, the SEC has established robust rules governing the procedure for, and form and content of, the disclosures.

Rule 14a-8 allows shareholders to submit proposals and, subject to certain exclusions, require a company to include such proposals in the proxy solicitation materials even if contrary to the position of the board of directors, and is accordingly a source of much contention.  Rule 14a-8 in particular allows a qualifying shareholder to submit proposals that if meet substantive and procedural requirements must be included in the company’s proxy materials for annual and special meetings, and provides a method for companies to either accept or attempt to exclude such proposals.

State laws in general allow a shareholder to attend a meeting in person and, at such meeting, to make a proposal to be voted upon by the shareholders at large. In adopting Rule 14a-8, the SEC provides a process and parameters for which these proposals can be made in advance and included in the proxy process.  By giving shareholders an opportunity to have their proposals included in the company proxy, it enables the shareholder to present the proposal to all shareholders, with little or no cost, to themselves.  It has been challenging for regulators to find a balance between protecting shareholder rights by allowing them to utilize company resources and preventing an abuse of the process to the detriment of the company and other shareholders.

The rule itself is written in “plain English” in a question-and-answer format designed to be easily understood and interpreted by shareholders relying on and using the rule. Other than based on procedural deficiencies, if a company desires to exclude a particular shareholder process, it must have substantive grounds for doing so.  Procedurally to qualify to submit a proposal, a shareholder must:

  • Continuously hold a minimum of $2,000 in market value or 1% of the company’s securities entitled to vote on the subject proposal, for at least one year prior to the date the proposal, is submitted and through the date of the annual meeting;
  • If the securities are not held of record by the shareholder, such as if they are in street name in a brokerage account, the shareholder must prove its ownership by either providing a written statement from the record owner (i.e., brokerage firm or bank) or by submitting a copy of filed Schedules 13D or 13G or Forms 3, 4 or 5 establishing such ownership for the required period of time;
  • If the shareholder does not hold the requisite number of securities through the date of the meeting, the company can exclude any proposal made by that shareholder for the following two years;
  • Provide a written statement to the company that the submitting shareholder intends to continue to hold the securities through the date of the meeting;
  • Clearly state the proposal and course of action that the shareholder desires the company to follow;
  • Submit no more than one proposal for a particular annual meeting;
  • Submit the proposal prior to the deadline, which is 120 calendar days before the anniversary of the date on which the company’s proxy materials for the prior year’s annual meeting were delivered to shareholders, or if no prior annual meeting or if the proposal relates to a special meeting, then within a reasonable time before the company begins to print and send its proxy materials;
  • Attend the annual meeting or arrange for a qualified representative to attend the meeting on their behalf – provided, however, that attendance may be in the same fashion as allowed for other shareholders such as in person or by electronic media;
  • If the shareholder or their qualified representative fail to attend the meeting without good cause, the company can exclude any proposal made by that shareholder for the following two years;
  • The proposal, including any accompanying supporting statement, cannot exceed 500 words. If the proposal is included in the company’s proxy materials, the statement submitted in support thereof will also be included.

A proposal that does not meet the substantive and procedural requirements may be excluded by the company. To exclude the proposal on procedural grounds, the company must notify the shareholder of the deficiency within 14 days of receipt of the proposal and allow the shareholder to cure the problem. The shareholder has 14 days from receipt of the deficiency notice to cure and resubmit the proposal. If the deficiency could not be cured, such as because it was submitted after the 120-day deadline, no notice or opportunity to cure must be provided.

Upon receipt of a shareholder proposal, a company has many options. The company can elect to include the proposal in the proxy materials. In such case, the company may make a recommendation to vote for or against the proposal, or not take a position at all and simply include the proposal as submitted by the shareholder. If the company intends to recommend a vote against the proposal (i.e., Statement of Opposition), it must follow specified rules as to the form and content of the recommendation. A copy of the Statement of Opposition must be provided to the shareholder no later than 30 days prior to filing a definitive proxy statement with the SEC.  If included in the proxy materials, the company must place the proposal on the proxy card with check-the-box choices for approval, disapproval or abstention.

As noted above, the company may seek to exclude the proposal based on procedural deficiencies, in which case it will need to notify the shareholder and provide a right to cure. The company may also seek to exclude the proposal based on substantive grounds, in which case it must file its reasons with the SEC which is usually done through a no-action letter seeking confirmation of its decision and provide a copy of the letter to the shareholder.  The SEC has issued a dozen staff legal bulletins providing guidance on shareholder proposals, including interpretations of the substantive grounds for exclusion.  Finally, the company may meet with the shareholder and provide a mutually agreed upon resolution to the requested proposal.

As a refresher, substantive grounds for exclusion include:

  • The proposal is not a proper subject for shareholder vote in accordance with state corporate law;
  • The proposal would bind the company to take a certain action as opposed to recommending that the board of directors or company take a certain action;
  • The proposal would cause the company to violate any state, federal or foreign law, including other proxy rules;
  • The proposal would cause the company to publish materially false or misleading statements in its proxy materials;
  • The proposal relates to a personal claim or grievance against the company or others or is designed to benefit that particular shareholder to the exclusion of the rest of the shareholders;
  • The proposal relates to immaterial operations or actions by the company in that it relates to less than 5% of the company’s total assets, earnings, sales or other quantitative metrics;
  • The proposal requests actions or changes in ordinary business operations, including the termination, hiring or promotion of employees – provided, however, that proposals may relate to succession planning for a CEO (I note this exclusion right has also been the subject of controversy and litigation and is discussed in SLB 14H);
  • The proposal requests that the company take action that it is not legally capable of or does not have the legal authority to perform;
  • The proposal seeks to disqualify a director nominee or specifically include a director for nomination;
  • The proposal seeks to remove an existing director whose term is not completed;
  • The proposal questions the competence, business judgment or character of one or more director nominees;
  • The company has already substantially implemented the requested action;
  • The proposal is substantially similar to another shareholder proposal that will already be included in the proxy materials;
  • The proposal is substantially similar to a proposal that was included in the company proxy materials within the last five years and received fewer than a specified number of votes;
  • The proposal seeks to require the payment of a dividend; or
  • The proposal directly conflicts with one of the company’s own proposals to be submitted to shareholders at the same meeting.

Proposed Rule Change

The need for a change in the rules has become increasingly apparent in recent years.  As discussed above, a shareholder that submits a proposal for inclusion shifts the cost of soliciting proxies for their proposal to the company and ultimately other shareholders and as such is susceptible to abuse.  In light of the significant costs for companies and other shareholders related to shareholder proxy submittals, and the relative ease in which a shareholder can utilize other methods of communication with a company, including social media, the current threshold of holding $2,000 worth of stock for just one year is just not enough of a meaningful stake or investment interest in the company to warrant inclusion rights under the rules.  Prior to proposing the new rules, the SEC conducted in-depth research including reviewing thousands of proxies, shareholder proposals and voting results on those proposals.  The SEC also conducted a Proxy Process Roundtable and invited public comments and input.

The proposed rule changes address eligibility to submit and resubmit proposals but do not alter the underlying substantive grounds upon which a company may reject a proposal.  The proposed amendments would amend the proposal eligibility requirements in Rule 14a-8(b) to:

(i) update the criteria, including the ownership requirements that a shareholder must satisfy to be eligible to have a shareholder proposal included in a company’s proxy statement such that a shareholder would have to satisfy one of three eligibility levels: (a) continuous ownership of at least $2,000 of the company’s securities for at least three years (updated from one year); (b) continuous ownership of at least $15,000 of the company’s securities for at least two years; or (c) continuous ownership of at least $25,000 of the company’s securities for at least one year;

(ii) require that if a shareholder decides to use a representative to submit their proposal, they must provide documentation that the representative is authorized to act on their behalf and clear evidence of the shareholder’s identity, role and interest in the proposal;

(iii) require that each shareholder that submits a proposal state that they are able to meet with the company, either in person or via teleconference, no less than 10 calendar days, nor more than 30 calendar days, after submission of the proposal, and provide contact information as well as business days and specific times that the shareholder is available to discuss the proposal with the company.

The proposed amendments would amend the “one proposal” requirements in Rule 14a-8(c) to:

(i) apply the one-proposal rule to each person rather than each shareholder who submits a proposal, such that a shareholder would not be permitted to submit one proposal in his or her own name and simultaneously serve as a representative to submit a different proposal on another shareholder’s behalf for consideration at the same meeting. Likewise, a representative would not be permitted to submit more than one proposal to be considered at the same meeting, even if the representative were to submit each proposal on behalf of different shareholders.

Under certain circumstances, Rule 14a-8(i)(12) allows companies to exclude a shareholder proposal that “deals with substantially the same subject matter as another proposal or proposals that has or have been previously included in the company’s proxy materials within the preceding 5 calendar years.” The proposed amendments would amend the shareholder proposal resubmittal eligibility in Rule 14a-8(i)(12) to:

(i) increase the current resubmission thresholds of 3%, 6% and 10% for matters voted on once, twice or three or more times in the last five years, respectively, of shareholder support a proposal must receive to be eligible for future submission to thresholds of 5%, 15% and 25%; and

(ii) add a new provision that would allow for exclusion of a proposal that has been previously voted on three or more times in the last five years, notwithstanding having received at least 25% of the votes cast on its most recent submission, if the proposal (a) received less than 50% of the votes cast and (ii) experienced a decline in shareholder support of 10% or more compared to the immediately preceding vote.

Commissioner Statements on the Proposed Rule Changes

Chair Jay Clayton supports the proposed amendments as part of the necessary modernization of the proxy process.  He specifically believes that the requirement for shareholders to engage and meet with management on a proposal will have a significant beneficial impact on company-shareholder communications and the proxy process.  Focusing on the resubmission changes, Chair Clayton states, “if after three attempts at a proposal within a 5 year period, 75% of your fellow shareholders still do not support your proposal, you should take a time out.”

Commissioner Roisman also supports the proposed rule changes discussing how long it has been since the last amendments and the significant changes in the markets and technology since that time.  The SEC has an obligation to revisit rules regularly to ensure they remain appropriate in the current dynamic. He points out that this is especially true when the market participants are loudly proclaiming that the rules are not working, as in the case of the proxy process and shareholder submission and resubmission eligibility criteria.

Commissioner Hester Peirce supports the rule changes and is eloquent and clever in her statement, as usual.  Cutting to the chase, the question in Rule 14a-8 is: “[W]hen should one shareholder be able to force other shareholders to pay for including the proponent shareholder’s proposal in the company’s proxy materials?” Continuing: “[T]he proposed changes would help to weed out proposals whose proponents do not have a real interest in the company and proposals for which other shareholders do not share the proponent’s enthusiasm.”  The current proposals are fair, ensuring that shareholders with a real economic stake can submit proposal and resubmit those proposals where other shareholder interest increases.

Not surprisingly, Commissioner Jackson is not in support of the changes beginning his statement by characterizing the proposed rule changes as limiting public company investors’ ability to hold corporate insiders accountable.  He agrees that the rules need to be updated and revisited but does not approve of proposals made.

Commissioner Allison Lee sides with Commissioner Jackson in seeing the proposed rules as suppressing shareholder rights.  Commissioner Lee is specifically concerned about small shareholders being deterred from submitting proposals related to ESG matters including climate risk disclosures.