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Red flags for directors: SEC may take magnifying glass to disclosures involving significant judgments in COVID-19 era

In a fast-paced webinar, the Heartland NACD chapter recently explored the board’s role in SEC inquiries and discussed red flags for directors, as well as SEC trends and developments. Panelists included Terri Vaughan, a seasoned board leader; Lory Stone, an SEC enforcement attorney; and Terry Pritchard, an experienced securities litigator at Bryan Cave Leighton Paisner LLP.

During a discussion of red flags that should draw directors’ attention, Ms. Stone noted that the SEC may take a magnifying glass to disclosures involving significant judgements and estimates, particularly in the current economic conditions.  She quoted her former colleague Steven Peikin, previous Co-Director of the Division of Enforcement, who stated in a speech at a recent securities enforcement forum:

Recognizing that the economic impacts of any downturn may vary across different industries and sectors, the [SEC’s Coronavirus] Steering Committee has developed a systematic process to review public filings from issuers in highly-impacted industries, with a focus on identifying disclosures that appear to be significantly out of step with others in the same industry. We are also looking for disclosures, impairments, or valuations that may attempt to disguise previously undisclosed problems or weaknesses as coronavirus-related.

Other red flags discussed during the webinar included:

  • Tips/hotline reports, which should be closely examined by the board;
  • “Domineering” CEOs who may have unchecked power;
  • Auditor resignations, which should prompt the board to understand the reason for the resignation;
  • Management shake-ups, with abrupt terminations or resignations;
  • Government investigations;
  • Financial restatements;
  • Practice changes in judgment areas (debt restructuring, revenue recognition practices);

Divided SEC increases Rule 14a-8 shareholder proposal requirements

On September 23, 2020, a divided SEC adopted amendments to the Rule 14a-8 shareholder proposal rule by a 3-2 vote. The changes, among other things:

  • increased the stock ownership requirement for eligibility to submit a proposal,
  • strengthened certain procedural requirements, and
  • raised the thresholds to resubmit a proposal that was previously voted on by shareholders.

Click here for a client alert describing the amendments in more detail.

SEC Issues New COVID-19 Guidance: Health-Related or Personal Transportation Benefits May Be Perqs

The SEC Division of Corporate Finance yesterday issued new Regulation S-K guidance, CD&I 219.05, to help public companies determine whether benefits provided to executive officers because of COVID-19 should be disclosed as perquisites or personal benefits for purposes of executive compensation proxy disclosures.  Consistent with Release 33-8732A, the guidance confirms that an item provided because of the COVID-19 pandemic is not a perquisite or personal benefit if it is “integrally and directly related to the performance of the executive’s duties,” which depends on the particular facts.

The CD&I states:  “In some cases, an item considered a perquisite or personal benefit when provided in the past may not be considered as such when provided as a result of COVID-19. For example, enhanced technology needed to make the NEO’s home his or her primary workplace upon imposition of local stay-at-home orders would generally not be a perquisite or personal benefit because of the integral and direct relationship to the performance of the executive’s duties. On the other hand, items such as new health-related or personal transportation benefits provided to address new risks arising because of COVID-19, if they are not integrally and directly related to the performance of the executive’s duties, may be perquisites or personal benefits even if the company would not have provided the benefit but for the COVID-19 pandemic, unless they are generally available to all employees.”

Perqs have been, and will continue to be, an area of SEC focus.  We urge companies to carefully give thought

Kodak Releases Special Committee Report – Details Failures in Corporate Governance Practices

We previously blogged about the myriad issues arising in connection with the botched announcement by Kodak of a potential $765 million loan from the federal government as part of its coronavirus response measures, as well as insider stock transactions preceding and immediately following the announcement.  Kodak’s board formed a special committee to conduct an internal investigation.  Akin Gump, retained by the special committee to conduct the investigation, last week delivered its report of over 70 pages of factual findings and legal analysis, concluding that there were no violations of law or company policy, but identifying corporate governance issues requiring attention and remediation.  The company has posted the report on its website.

As we previously blogged, on July 27 the internal public relations team at Kodak released an alert to local media that Kodak would be making a big announcement the following day concerning a major initiative between Kodak and the federal government.  Stories immediately started circulating on social media and the websites of local network affiliates. Kodak then contacted the recipients of the advisory to tell them it was meant only as background and was not intended for publication.  The formal announcement followed before the market open on July 28 when Kodak and the U.S. International Development Finance Corp (DFC) jointly announced a ”letter of interest” contemplating a $765 million loan to Kodak to launch a new pharmaceutical business. Although the press release made clear that this was only a letter of interest and the loan was subject

CFTC Report: Climate Change Poses Major Risks to U.S. Financial System

Includes recommendations for action by SEC and other financial regulators

Last week, a subcommittee of the Commodity Futures Trading Commission issued a sweeping report addressing climate change risks, concluding that they pose both major systemic and sector/regional-level risks to the stability of the U.S. financial system and its ability to sustain the American economy.  Further, it concludes that such risks are increasing rapidly, economic incentives are misdirected and immediate action across the global financial system is required.

The report is wide-ranging with a number of specific, detailed recommendations.  Its length and complexity make it impractical to summarize for this blog, but fortunately, the report does include a well-organized executive summary (beginning on page i).

Some of the report’s key points include:

  • The United States should establish a price on carbon. A fair, economy-wide carbon pricing regime is necessary to fix a fundamental market flaw in the economic system to ensure that appropriate incentives are in place for the efficient allocation of capital
  • U.S. regulators should use their broad, flexible authority to start addressing the risks now
  • Research arms of federal financial regulators should study the financial implications of climate-related risks, including the potential for and implications of climate-related “sub-systemic” shocks to financial markets and institutions in particular sectors and regions of the United States (e.g., agricultural and community banks and financial institutions serving low-to-moderate income or marginalized communities)
  • Financial regulators, in coordination with the private sector, should work together to rapidly improve the quality of data, analytics

SEC Staff Provides Roadmap for Extending Confidential Treatment Orders

The SEC staff amended CF Disclosure Guidance: Topic No. 7 on September 9, 2020 to address the options for companies with confidential treatment orders that are about to expire.  The guidance explains that companies have three choices:

  • Refile the unredacted exhibit. If the contract is still material and none of the redacted information still needs to be protected, the company should refile it in complete, unredacted form.
  • Extend the confidential period pursuant to Rules 406 or 24b-2. If the contract continues to be material, and the previously redacted information continues to be confidential, the company may request to extend the period of confidential treatment by filing an application under Rule 406 of the Securities Act of 1933 or Rule 24b-2 of the Securities Exchange Act of 1934.
    • Short-form application for orders about to expire and initially issued less than three years ago.  If the order is about to expire and was initially issued less than three years ago, companies may use the short-form application, which provides a streamlined process to file an application to extend the time for which confidential treatment has been granted. If the company reduces the extent of omitted information, it must file the revised redacted version of the exhibit on Edgar when submitting the application.

Short-form applications should be submitted to CTExtensions@sec.gov. That email address should not be used for any other confidential treatment request.

    • New application for orders about to

Consider Updates to D&O Questionnaire as Pressure Mounts for Voluntary Racial, Ethnic and Gender Diversity Disclosures

As the pandemic and racial unrest continue in 2020, companies should consider whether to update their D&O questionnaires to gather information in response to the growing pressure for voluntary diversity disclosures from investors, proxy advisors, activists and others, as noted in our recent posts on August 3 and August 10.

Boards grappling with the possibility of voluntary diversity disclosures must consider how to accurately collect data.  In February 2019, the SEC issued Compliance and Disclosure Interpretation 133.13 requiring certain disclosures if a board or nominating committee considers self-identified diversity characteristics of an individual who has consented to the company’s disclosure of those characteristics.  Companies understandably were slow to address self-identification of diversity traits in D&O questionnaires, given the sensitivity of the topic.

But now, as pressures mount and some companies publicly pledge to add diverse directors to their boards within one year, the annual D&O questionnaire can be a useful way to document the issue and provide a basis for any voluntary disclosures a company may decide to make.  Given the sensitivity of the issue, companies could consider discussing the topic in advance of circulating the questionnaire in order to evaluate whether or how directors wish to proceed. To maintain collegiality, companies should make clear responses are optional, and take care to avoid any implication that particular directors were appointed because of their race, gender or other characteristics.  In lieu of a questionnaire, the board could consider addressing self-identification disclosures during a board meeting or in

SEC, in Split Vote, Expands Accredited Investor Definition, Paving Way for More Investors to Access Private Capital Markets

The SEC adopted amendments on August 26, 2020 by a 3-2 vote, to expand the definition of “accredited investor,” paving the way for certain financially sophisticated institutional and individual investors to participate in private capital market offerings. The SEC release notably invited members of the public to propose to the Commission additional specific certifications, designations, degrees, or programs of study that should qualify someone to be an accredited investor.

Click here to read the Alert in full.

Divided SEC amends Regulation S-K rules to modernize descriptions of business, legal proceedings and risk factors

On August 26, 2020, by a 3-2 party-line vote, the SEC adopted amendments to Regulation S-K that aim to modernize the descriptions of business and legal proceedings, and risk factor disclosure requirements. The amendments reflect a principles-based approach in which disclosure objectives are set and management is permitted to exercise judgment on how to satisfy those objectives — tailored to the particular registrant — to the extent such information is material to an understanding of the topic.

We have prepared a client alert describing the amendments in more detail.  The following is a brief summary.

Description of Business (Items 101(a) and (c)). The amendments provide a nonexclusive list of the types of information that a company may need to disclose, based on a principles-based approach. For example, a company would describe its dependence on key products and services that are material instead of focusing on products and services that meet the quantitative thresholds based on revenue currently prescribed in Item 101(c)(1)(i).

Among other things, the revised list of disclosure topics relating to the general development of a company’s business and accompanying business description:

  • Eliminates the look-back in Item 101(a) – generally five years, or three years for smaller reporting companies — to focus on material developments of a company’s business, regardless of a specific time frame.
  • Revises and expands the list of disclosure topics in Item 101(c) with a principles-based, non-exclusive list of topics.
  • Require, to the extent material, new disclosures regarding “human capital resources,” which includes any

Troubles Mount for Embattled Eastman Kodak

A proposed class action has been filed against Eastman Kodak alleging securities fraud in connection with certain events surrounding the government’s possible $765 million pharmaceutical development loan to Kodak.  The plaintiff seeks to represent a class of shareholders who may have purchased Kodak stock between July 27 – when early word of a possible government-Kodak initiative was released – and August 7 – when the company announced the formation of an independent committee of the board of directors to conduct an internal investigation of the events surrounding the possible government loan.

Between those dates, the company released a flurry of information, Senator Elizabeth Warren sent a letter to the SEC seeking an SEC investigation, the U.S. government tweeted that the loan would be halted pending resolution of wrongdoing allegations and there was extraordinary stock activity.  During that time, Kodak stock rose as high as $60 per share, up from about $2 per share the prior week.

The troubles seem to stem from an advisory sent by Kodak to media outlets in Rochester, New York, Kodak’s hometown, on Monday, July 27.  According to media reports, local reporters tweeted information on July 27 about an initiative between Kodak and the U.S. government in response to the coronavirus pandemic.  Those were followed by posted news stories on the websites of the local ABC and CBS affiliates.  Some of those tweets and stories were deleted when Kodak reached out to advise them that the advisory information was only for “background” and not publication. 

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