Nasdaq Rule 5605 delineates the listing qualifications and requirements for a board of directors and committees, including the independence standards for board members. Nasdaq requires that a majority of the board of directors of a listed company be “independent” and further that all members of the audit, nominating and compensation committees be independent.
Under Rule 5605, an “independent director” means a person other than an executive officer or employee of a company or any individual having a relationship which, in the opinion of the company’s board of directors, would interfere with the exercise of independent judgment in carrying out the responsibilities of a director. In other words, the question of independence must ultimately be determined by the board of directors who must make an affirmative finding that a director is independent. However, the Nasdaq rules specify certain relationships that would disqualify a person from being considered independent. Stock ownership is not on the list and is not enough, without more, to preclude independence.
Rule 5605 specifies that the following people cannot be considered independent:
(i) a director who is, or at any time during the past three years was, employed by the company, provided however, interim employment of less than one year would not be a disqualifier as long as such employment had since terminated. In addition, employment by an entity that was later acquired by the company would not disqualify a director from being independent provided the former officer was not employed by the company after the acquisition;
(ii) a director who accepted or who has a family member who accepted any compensation from the company in excess of $120,000 during any period of twelve consecutive months within the three years preceding the determination of independence, other than: (a) compensation for board or board committee service; (b) compensation paid to a family member who is an employee but not an executive of the company; (c) benefits under a tax-qualified retirement plan, or non-discretionary compensation; or (d) compensation received while acting as an interim officer as long as such employment lasted for less than a year and has since terminated. Options received for services should be valued using a commonly accepted option pricing formula, such as the Black-Scholes or binomial model at the time of grant. The option value is considered a payment upon grant even if the option does not immediately vest or if there are conditions to vesting or exercise. This prohibition is meant to capture any compensation that directly benefits the director or family member and as such would include political contributions to a campaign by either. However, it is not meant to capture ordinary course business transactions such as interest on an arm’s-length loan;
(iii) a director who is a family member of an individual who is, or at any time during the past three years was, employed by the company as an executive officer;
(iv) a director who is, or has a family member who is, a partner in (other than limited partner), or a controlling shareholder or an executive officer of, any organization to which the company made, or from which the company received, payments for property or services in the current or any of the past three fiscal years that exceed 5% of the recipient’s consolidated gross revenues for that year, or $200,000, whichever is more, other than the following: (a) payments arising solely from investments in the company’s securities; or (b) payments under non-discretionary charitable contribution matching programs;
(v) a director of the company who is, or has a family member who is, employed as an executive officer of another entity where at any time during the past three years any of the executive officers of the company serve on the compensation committee of such other entity; or
(vi) a director who is, or has a family member who is, a current partner of the company’s outside auditor, or was a partner or employee of the company’s outside auditor who worked on the company’s audit at any time during any of the past three years.
Reference to the “company” includes parents and subsidiaries or any other entities that the company consolidates financial statements with, including variable interest entities. Executive officer refers to any person covered by SEC Rule 16a-1(f) and in particular the company’s president, principal financial officer, principal accounting officer, any vice-present in charge of a principal business unit, division or function or any officer or person who performs a policymaking function, which can include officers of a parent or subsidiary.
For purposes of Rule 5605, “family member” means a person’s spouse, parents, children and siblings, whether by blood, marriage or adoption, or anyone residing in such person’s home. This definition technically encompasses stepchildren as they are children “by marriage.” However, when applying the three-year look-back provisions, a company does not have to consider a person who is no longer a family member as a result of legal separation, divorce, death or incapacitation.
In June 2019, Nasdaq proposed to amend the definition of “family member” to narrow who can be included and add a level of certainty. In particular, Nasdaq proposed to change the definition to “a person’s spouse, parents, children, siblings, mothers and fathers-in-law, sons and daughters-in-law, brothers and sisters-in-law, and anyone (other than domestic employees) who shares such person’s home.” In the proposed rule change release, Nasdaq admitted that it did not intend to include stepchildren and that the change would correct this mistake. The new proposed language matches the NYSE definition.
However, in September 2019, the SEC instituted proceedings to determine whether to disapprove the proposed rule change. The SEC basically thinks Nasdaq is over-correcting in its new proposed rule. Certainly it would make sense to exclude a stepchild where the parents marry after the child is an adult and no parental relationship exists, but not where the step-parent raises or is otherwise close to the stepchild. The SEC also does not necessarily believe that the term “children” excludes stepchildren, nor as noted, should it. As of publication of this blog, no further action has been taken.