Conditional Relief For Persons Affected By Coronavirus

by Laura Anthony, Esq. on March 27, 2020 in Uncategorized

As the whole world faces unprecedented personal and business challenges, our duty to continue to run our businesses, meet regulatory filing obligations and support our capital markets continues unabated.  While we stay inside and practice social distancing, we also need to work each day navigating the new normal.  Thankfully many in the capital markets, including our firm, were already set up to continue without any interruption, working virtually in our homes relying on the same technology we have relied on for years.

We all need to remember that the panic selling frenzy will end.  Emotions with even out and the daily good news that comes with the bad (for example, the number of cases in China is falling dramatically; some drugs are working to help and the FDA is speeding up review times for others; early signs China’s economy is starting to recover already; scientists around the world are making breakthroughs on a vaccine; etc.) will begin to quell the fear.  No one knows what the economic damage will be but we do know that new opportunities will appear, the buying opportunity is already being hinted at for capital markets, and entrepreneurs will continue.

In the meantime, besides the economic stimulus packages that have already passed in some states and that are fighting their way through the federal partisan political system, regulators have provided some relief for our clients and the capital markets participants.

Extension in SEC Reporting Filing Deadlines

The SEC has issued an exemptive order providing public companies with an additional 45 days to file certain disclosure reports that would otherwise be due between March 1 and April 30, 2020.  The extension is only available under certain conditions.  In order to qualify for the extension a company must file a current report (Form 8-K or 6-K) explaining why the relief is needed in the company’s particular circumstances and the estimated date the report will be filed.  In addition, the 8-K or 6-K should include a risk factor explaining the material impact of Covid-19 on its business.   The Form 8-K or 6-K must be filed by the later of March 16 or the original reporting deadline.

Although the SEC will likely give significant leeway to companies, the general fact that the coronavirus has an impact on the world is not enough.  In order to qualify for the relief a company must be directly impacted in their ability to complete and file disclosure reports on a timely basis.  For instance, disruptions to transportation, and limited access to facilities, support staff and advisors could all impact the ability of a company to meet its filing deadlines

The current report disclosing the need for the extension must also provide investors and the market place with insight regarding their assessment of, and plans for addressing, material risks to their business and operations resulting from the coronavirus to the fullest extent practicable to keep investors and markets informed of material developments.  In other words, if a company is so impacted by the coronavirus that they must seek an extension to its filing obligation, it must also inform investors, to the best of its knowledge and ability, what that impact is and how it is being addressed.

If the reason the report cannot be timely filed relates to a third parties inability to furnish an opinion, report or certification, the Form 8-K or 6-K should attach an exhibit statement signed by such third party specifying the reason they cannot provide the opinion, report or certification.

For purposes of eligibility to use Form S-3, a company relying on the exemptive order will be considered current and timely in its Exchange Act filing requirements if it was current and timely as of the first day of the relief period and it files any report due during the relief period within 45 days of the filing deadline for the report.  For more on S-3 eligibility, see HERE.

Likewise, for purposes of the Form S-8 eligibility requirements and the current public information eligibility requirements of Rule 144, a company relying on the exemptive order will be considered current in its Exchange Act filing requirements if it was current as of the first day of the relief period and it files any report due during the relief period within 45 days of the filing deadline for the report.

The extension actually changes the due date for the filing of the report.  Accordingly, a company would be able to file a 12b-25 on the 45th day to gain an additional 5 day extension for a Form 10-Q and 15 day extension for a Form 10-K.

Disclosures Regarding Covid-19 Impact

The SEC press release regarding the exemptive Order reminds companies of the obligations to disclose information related to the impact of Covid-19 on their businesses.  SEC Chair Jay Clayton stated “[W]e also remind all companies to provide investors with insight regarding their assessment of, and plans for addressing, material risks to their business and operations resulting from the coronavirus to the fullest extent practicable to keep investors and markets informed of material developments.  How companies plan and respond to the events as they unfold can be material to an investment decision, and I urge companies to work with their audit committees and auditors to ensure that their financial reporting, auditing and review processes are as robust as practicable in light of the circumstances in meeting the applicable requirements. Companies providing forward-looking information in an effort to keep investors informed about material developments, including known trends or uncertainties regarding coronavirus, can take steps to avail themselves of the safe harbor in Section 21E of the Exchange Act for forward-looking statements.”

Furthermore, the combined effects of the impact of the virus and extensions in the filing of periodic reports creates an increased threat of the trading on material nonpublic information (insider trading).  The exemptive order reminds all companies of its obligations.  If a company is aware of risk related to the coronavirus it needs to refrain from engaging in securities transactions with the public (private and public offerings, buy-backs, etc.) and prevent directors and officers, and other corporate insiders who are aware of these matters, from initiating such transactions until investors have been appropriately informed about the risk.

Companies are reminded not to make selective disclosures and to take steps to ensure that information is publicly disseminated where accidental disclosure is made.  Depending on a company’s particular circumstances, it should consider whether it may need to revisit, refresh, or update previous disclosure to the extent that the information becomes materially inaccurate.  Where disclosures related to the coronavirus are forward looking, a company can avail itself of either the Exchange Act Section 21E or common law safe harbors (see HERE).

Furnishing of Proxy and Information Statements

The SEC has also granted relief where a company is required to comply with Exchange Act Sections 14(a) or 14(c) requiring the furnishing of proxy or information statements to shareholders, and mail delivery is not possible.  The order relieves a company of the requirement to furnish the proxy or information statement where the security holder has a mailing address located in an area where mail delivery service has been suspended due to Covid-19 and the company has made a good faith effort to furnish the materials to the shareholder.

Virtual Annual Meetings

Although the SEC regulates the proxy process for annual meetings of public companies, it does not regulate the place and format of the meeting itself, which remains subject to state law.  Although Delaware provides a great deal of flexibility for companies to hold virtual meetings, many states do not.  New York has historically been one of the states that does not have easy provisions for virtual meetings.  Accordingly, New York Governor Andrew Cuomo has issued an executive order temporarily permitting New York corporations to hold virtual annual meetings.  Although California is also not totally virtual meeting friendly, it has not yet issued exemptive relief.

Relief for Registered Transfer Agents

The SEC has issued an order providing transfer agents and certain other persons with conditional relief from certain obligations under the federal securities laws for persons affected by Covid-19 for the period from March 15, 2020 to May 30, 2020.  The SEC recognizes that transfer agents may have difficultly communicated with or conducting business with shareholders and others effected by the virus.

The exemptive order would provide relief for certain activities such as processing securities transfers and updating shareholder lists.  The exemptive order does not relieve the obligation to ensure that securities and funds are adequately safeguarded.

To qualify for the relief, the requesting person but make a written request to the SEC including a description of the obligation they are unable to comply with and the specific reasons for non-compliance.