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US Securities and Corporate Governance

Corporate Governance

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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

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

Lawsuits challenge alleged false proxy statements about commitment to diversity

A well-known plaintiffs’ law firm recently filed derivative lawsuits against four prominent companies, alleging false proxy disclosures and breaches of fiduciary duties.  The allegations focus on the absence of Black directors and executive leadership, and in some cases other persons of color, and very few Black employees, and purported false statements about the companies’ commitment to diversity.

The allegations of proxy statement misstatements, which include breaches of the duty of candor, vary somewhat among the complaints, but generally focus on:

  • Statements touting the board’s consideration of diversity in the nominating process;
  • Statements regarding the importance of diversity and inclusion in the company’s employment practices;
  • The absence of terms limits and the failure to discuss their effect on the nomination of Blacks and minorities; and
  • The failure to consider diversity and inclusion goals in executive compensation decisions and the lack of disclosure of the company’s unlawful discriminatory hiring and pay practices.

The complaints typically cite disclosures in the corporate governance and CD&A sections of the proxy statement, but in some cases also focus on company responses to shareholder proposals that relate to diversity and employment practices.

The allegations of breaches of fiduciary duties focus on directors’ failure to oversee compliance with anti-discrimination laws, citing class action settlements and/or government investigations regarding gender or other discrimination, and failing to ensure the inclusion of diverse candidates as directors, citing board committee charters and proxy disclosures.  Some of the complaints also challenged director and/or executive compensation as excessive or unjust in light

COVID-19 Business Risk Management: Addressing Supply Chain Risks

As public companies continue to manage vulnerabilities attendant to the global pandemic and its widespread economic consequences, counter-party risk assessments and careful management of those risks can be critical.  We previously blogged about a series of ongoing posts from our restructuring and special situations team relating to general and customer counter-party risk management during this time.  Most recently, the team provided its assessment of managing supply chain risks.

Our special situations team explores the need for vigilance with respect to the health and resilience of a company’s supply chain, especially for critical suppliers and those for which replacements are limited or nonexistent.  The team discusses some of the insolvency law issues attendant to suppliers and supply agreements; it also provides several risk mitigation strategies to help ensure continuity of supply and reasonableness of ongoing counter-party terms and conditions.  The team recommends companies engage in a fulsome assessment of all suppliers; consider supply chain diversification; and establish contingency plans for any suppliers who seem at risk.   The importance of knowing a company’s leverage and using it appropriately is discussed, as are practical issues pertaining to supplier possession of a company’s inventory or equipment.

While a company cannot control all of what is happening to its customers and suppliers, it can be fully cognizant of its counter-party risk assessments and implement strategies where appropriate to mitigate those risks.  When it comes time to report results for the quarter and the year, companies who have taken the time to take

Delaware Court of Chancery Again Declines to Dismiss a Caremark Oversight Failure Claim

On April 27, 2020, the Delaware Court of Chancery for the third time in a year denied a motion to dismiss a Caremark claim. The case, Hughes v. Hu, involves a derivative claim against the audit committee and officers of a Delaware corporation, Kandi Technologies Group, Inc., a Nasdaq-traded company based in China that manufactures electric car parts. In denying the motion, Vice Chancellor Laster found that there was a substantial likelihood that the defendants breached their fiduciary duty of loyalty by failing to act in good faith to maintain an adequate board-level oversight.

Two recent Delaware court decisions raised concern that Caremark duties may have expanded: Marchand v. Barnhill (declining to dismiss a Caremark claim against the board of Blue Bell Creamery for failing to make a good-faith effort to implement a system of board-level compliance monitoring and reporting to oversee the food safety of its ice cream production) and In re Clovis Oncology, Inc. Derivative Litigation  (where the board “did nothing” when the company released unsubstantiated reports about cancer treatments in clinical trials).  However, it appears that the Caremark duties remain unchanged, with Delaware courts underscoring the requirement that directors implement board-level oversight of mission-critical areas in good faith to ensure that the systems are working effectively and heed warnings or “red flags” that are discovered. This view of the line of recent Caremark decisions is further reinforced by Hughes, where serious alleged failures in internal processes regarding related-party transactions resulted in the plaintiff’s claim surviving a motion to dismiss.

The Hughes decision chronicles a long history of problematic internal control and monitoring within

U.S. Board oversight of “culture shock” as employees return to radically different workplaces

As states slowly move to reopen their economies, many returning employees will be shocked by the radical changes in their workplaces.  Collaborative spaces, ping pong tables and community break rooms, among other areas, will be transformed or closed for social distancing.  Employers will monitor and collect employee health information as never before.  Some employers already have announced they are exploring contact tracing and testing apps and wearable wristbands to alert employees if they are within six feet of each other or have come into close proximity with someone who has tested positive for COVID-19.

Directors will play a crucial role in overseeing these pandemic-related corporate culture and privacy challenges, far beyond typical oversight of operations and finance.  Directors have duties of care and loyalty to make well-informed decisions and act in the best interest of company stockholders.  To fulfill those duties and protect themselves under the business judgement rule, directors should require management to provide appropriate and timely reports  so they can monitor and consider up-to-date information in order to provide strategic direction and oversight in the rapidly-changing COVID-19 environment.

While there is always tension and management sensitivity about possible board over-reach into day-to-day operations, management and directors may need to work together more closely than in the past so that directors are fully informed in order to monitor management’s real-time decisions to re-open while fulfilling their oversight duties.

Conflicts in workplace protocols are likely, as management and directors grapple to balance risks and uncertainties with employee and customer privacy

U.S. public companies should evaluate their preparedness and triggers to adopt a rights plan

As public companies watch sharp market declines in their stock prices, many are wondering how they should respond.

A number of companies have adopted shelf rights plans that are reviewed by the board of directors on a “clear day” — in the absence of any takeover or activist activity — and at reasonable intervals. The plan would be adopted at a future date if deemed warranted, after consulting with legal and financial advisors.  Shelf plans became popular over the past 15-20 years as institutional investors and proxy advisors expressed strong opposition to rights plans generally, unless short-term in nature and approved or ratified by shareholders.

Typically, a shelf rights plan can be adopted quickly by the board in response to a threat. However, it should be noted that HSR rules only require notification where the acquirer would hold total voting securities in excess of $94 million, which represents almost 20% of a $500 million market cap company.  And a Schedule 13D needs only be filed within 10 days after acquiring beneficial ownership of more than 5%.  Further, state takeover statutes may have thresholds of 15% or 20% beneficial ownership.  As a result, in light of lower stock prices and high trading volumes, a potential acquirer might accumulate a large percentage of a company’s shares before the board becomes aware of that fact and is able to adopt the plan.

Under Delaware law, the adoption of a rights plan in the absence of a takeover threat would likely be subject to

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