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SEC Modernizes Auditor Independence Rules to Focus on Actual Threats to Objectivity

The Securities and Exchange Commission (the “SEC”) recently adopted final amendments to the auditor independence requirements set forth in Rule 2-01 of Regulation S-X.  The SEC stated that the final amendments were based on recurring fact patterns that the SEC staff has observed over the years in which certain relationships and services triggered technical independence rule violations without necessarily impairing an auditor’s objectivity and impartiality.  These relationships either triggered non-substantive rule breaches or required potentially time-consuming audit committee review of non-substantive matters, thereby diverting time, attention, and other resources of audit clients, auditors, and audit committees from other investor protection efforts.

In the adopting release, the SEC stated that the amendments “…maintain the bedrock principle that auditors must be independent in fact and in appearance while…more effectively focusing the independence analysis on those relationships or services that are more likely to threaten an auditor’s objectivity and impartiality.”  The SEC anticipates that Rule 2-01, as amended, will make the auditor independence rules easier to apply and appropriately limit the situations in which auditors are not deemed to be independent.

The amendments include, among others:

  • In connection with determining whether auditor independence exists in the context of initial public offerings, an amendment shortening the applicable look-back period to cover the immediately preceding fiscal year (rather than the period covered by the registration statement, which can be up to three years);
  • In connection with identifying relationships that may preclude a finding of auditor independence, an amendment providing that a sister entity

2021 Annual Shareholder Meetings – Avoiding a Super Spreader Event

As COVID-19 rages on, companies are again flocking to virtual annual meetings for the 2021 proxy season, but with one important difference:  the luxury of time.  Many companies are already exploring retention of virtual annual meeting providers and alternatives for video and real-time Q&A, as well as drafting fulsome disclosure about meeting logistics in their proxy materials to address concerns raised by investors, the SEC and others with respect to some pitfalls during the 2020 proxy season.

Service Providers and Technology.  For 2021, an issuer will have additional time to select an appropriate provider of a virtual meeting platform.  The most widely used vendor for hosting virtual meetings is Broadridge Financial Solutions, Inc., which reported that it hosted 1,494 virtual shareholder meetings during the first six months of 2020.  Other service providers, such as stock transfer agents, also provide such services.  A few companies have even arranged to facilitate the virtual component of an annual meeting via Zoom.

In 2020, some companies were caught off-guard by technology glitches.  For 2021, issuers should be in a position to anticipate technology issues and to put contingency plans in place to address them.  Issuers can follow best practices for virtual meetings by, for example, putting in place technical support lines for the duration of their meetings.

Format and Rules of Conduct (including Q&A).  Companies need to decide whether a meeting will be virtual-only, physical-only or a hybrid.  For any virtual component, they need to decide whether the access will be audio-only or

Key issues for upcoming Q3 10-Q filings

As public companies prepare their Q3 releases and filings, some of the key issues they should consider include:

  • MD&A – as we reported last quarter, the SEC Staff issued COVID-19 guidance in June calling for companies to disclose the impact of the pandemic through the eyes of management, including, to the extent material:
    • The effects of the pandemic on a company’s operations, liquidity and capital resources; the short- and long-term impact of any federal relief received under the CARES Act; and the company’s ability to continue as a going concern
    • Operational changes as a result of the pandemic – from converting to telework to modifying supply chain and customer contracts, and now converting to the return to the workplace and business reopenings
    • Trends, events or uncertainties (such as possible events of default, breach of covenants, etc.), unless a company can conclude either that it is not reasonably likely that the trend, uncertainty or other event will occur, or that a material effect on the company’s liquidity, capital resources or results of operations is not reasonably likely to occur
  • Non-GAAP Financial Measures – as we recently noted, it appears few companies are jumping on the EBITDAC bandwagon; however, the SEC staff has issued comments on such measures that include adjustments for COVID-19, as in Comment 6 here. Accordingly, companies should be prepared to explain the quantification of any such adjustments and their rationale, consistent with the guidance described in our earlier

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

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