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Disclosure Controls and Procedures – Not Just a Quarterly Certification

On June 15, 2021, the SEC announced that it had settled charges against First American Financial Corporation for failures in First American’s disclosure controls and procedures.  Rule 13a-15(a) under the Exchange Act requires issuers to maintain disclosure controls and procedures designed to ensure that information required to be disclosed by an issuer in reports it files or submits under the Exchange Act is recorded, processed, summarized and reported within the time periods specified in the SEC’s rules and forms. 

According to the SEC’s order, in May 2019, company management learned from a journalist that the company was experiencing a cybersecurity vulnerability that had resulted in the inadvertent public availability of customers’ personal data.  First American responded by issuing a statement to the press explaining that the company had learned of a design defect that had resulted in “possible unauthorized access to customer data” and had taken “immediate action to address the situation and shut down external access” to the data.  A few days later, First American issued a press release that was also furnished on Form 8-K.  In the release, the company reported that there was “[n]o preliminary indication of large-scale unauthorized access to customer information.”

Contrary to these disclosures, the SEC found that the vulnerability had exposed sensitive personal data, including social security numbers, in over 800 million images of customer documents for a period dating back to as early as 2003.  The SEC also found that the senior executives of the company who were

New SEC Chair directs staff to propose reforms for Rule 10b5-1 plans

Today SEC Chair Gensler announced that he has directed the staff to make recommendations on “how we might freshen up Rule 10b5-1” in order to address “real cracks in our insider trading regime.”   As discussed in our March 11, 2021 post, “Wait Continues for Any SEC Public Response to Senators’ Urgent Call for Rule 10b5-1 Reform,” earlier this year several Democratic members of the Senate Committee on Banking, Housing, and Urban Affairs submitted a letter urging the SEC to consider 10b5-1 plan reforms.   That wait ended with Gensler’s announcement.      

Gensler identified four key areas of concern:

  • No cooling off period before the first trade. Gensler supports consideration of proposals to mandate four- to six-month cooling off periods, citing research showing 14% of sales of restricted stock occur within 30 days of plan adoption and approximately 40% within the first two months.
  • No limits on termination of plans. Gensler believes that termination of plans while insiders are aware of material nonpublic information may be “as economically significant as carrying out an actual transaction” and “undermines investor confidence.”
    • Consistent with Exchange Act Rule CDI 120.18, Gensler noted that “cancelling or amending any 10b5-1 plans calls into question whether they were entered into in good faith. If insiders don’t act in good faith when using 10b5-1 plans, those plans will not offer them an affirmative defense.”
  • No mandatory disclosure requirements. Gensler believes “more disclosure regarding the adoption, modification, and terms of Rule 10b5‑1 plans

SEC announces re-examination of proxy advisor rules and interpretations

Newly installed Chairman Gary Gensler announced on June 1, 2021 that he is directing the SEC staff to consider whether to revisit its recent actions with respect to proxy voting advice businesses, including:

  • The SEC’s 2020 proxy rule amendments
    • As discussed in our July 24, 2020 blog, the amendments codified the SEC’s interpretation that the definition of solicitation encompassed proxy voting advice and established requirements for exemptions from the information and filing requirements.
  • The SEC’s 2019 interpretation and guidance regarding solicitation
    • As discussed in our October 2019 newsletter, the SEC stated its view that proxy voting advice generally constitutes a “solicitation” subject to the federal proxy rules and explained what proxy advisers should consider disclosing in order to avoid a potential violation of Rule 14a-9 where the failure to disclose such information would render the advice materially false or misleading.

As a result of the Chairman’s announcement, the SEC staff announced later on June 1 that it has decided that it will not recommend enforcement action based on the 2019 interpretation and guidance or the 2020 amendments during this period of staff review.

In addition, the SEC staff announced that if the 2020 amendments ultimately remain in place, it will not recommend enforcement action based on their conditions for a reasonable period after any resumption by ISS of its litigation challenging the 2020 amendments and 2019 interpretation and guidance.

Following these announcements, Commissioners Pierce and Roisman

Russia Now Focal Point of Additional Sanctions and Export Controls, With an Added Bonus for Public Companies (Oh my!)

In response to a variety of activities allegedly undertaken by Russia, the U.S. Government has imposed a series of additional sanctions and export control measures since early March.  Collectively, the March and April sanctions take a variety of forms, including the suspension of entry into the United States and the denial of visas to certain non-U.S. citizens, denial of government credit and financial assistance, cessation of all foreign military financing, export controls changes, expanded sanctions authority, and additional designations of blocked persons.  These sanctions may affect anyone doing business with or in Russia.  Public companies should be particularly mindful of the potential for more reporting pursuant to Section 13(r)(1)(D) of the Securities and Exchange Act of 1934 (“34 Act”) as a side effect of certain of the additional sanctions.

Additional Sanctions Introduced and More Designations Under Existing Authorities

Following the determination that the Government of the Russian Federation violated the Chemical Weapons Convention based on the Navalny attack, the U.S. Government designated multiple new parties under existing sanctions authorities.  Pursuant to Section 231 of the Countering America’s Adversaries Through Sanctions Act (“CAATSA”), the U.S. State Department added six parties to its list of persons that are part of or act for, or on behalf of, the Russian intelligence or defense sectors.  The newly added parties are:

  • 27th Scientific Center;
  • 48 Central Scientific Research Institute Sergiev Posad;
  • 48 Central Scientific Research Institute Kirov;
  • 48 Central Scientific Research Institute Yekaterinburg;
  • State Scientific Research Institute of Organic Chemistry and Technology; and
  • 33rd Scientific Research

As SPACs’ Popularity Explodes, Liability Risks Rise As Well

One driver of the popularity of SPACs is the perception that they have lower liability risks than a traditional IPO.  But a closer look at SPAC transactions suggests that the liability risks are not as low as some believe, and SPAC sponsors and directors and officers of SPAC companies should act to protect themselves against potential claims from both the private plaintiffs’ bar and the government.  Click here to read the alert in full.

SEC staff announces guidance for SPACs

Last week the Staff of the Division of Corporation Finance issued a statement addressing a variety of accounting, financial reporting and governance issues that a private operating company should consider before undertaking a business combination with a special purpose acquisition company (a “SPAC”), shortly followed by one by the Acting Chief Accountant addressing financial reporting and auditing considerations for companies considering merging with SPACs.

The Corporation Finance statement addressed:

  • Ineligibility for
    • The 71-day extension for target company financials, which must be filed on Form 8-K within four business days of closing the de-SPAC transaction
    • Incorporation of 1934 Act filings on Form S-1 until three years after closing 
    • Use of Form S-8 to register equity plans until 60 days after filing the “Super 8-K” containing required “Form 10 information” 
    • WKSI status, use of free writing prospectuses and certain other less strict requirements for public offerings 
  • Public company reporting requirements applicable to the SPAC before, and the combined company after, closing including
    • Books and records requirements
    • SEC reporting and disclosure requirements 
    • The Staff noted that in the limited circumstances described in S-K CDI 215.02, it would not object if the combined company were to exclude management’s assessment of internal control over financial reporting in the Form 10-K covering the fiscal year in which the transaction was consummated 
    • New accounting requirements
  • Stock exchange listing standards, including quantitative as well as corporate governance

Be Aware – SEC Implements Holding Foreign Companies Accountable Act (HFCA) Requirements

The SEC recently announced its adoption of interim final amendments to certain forms, including Form 10-K and Form 20-F, to implement the congressionally mandated document submission and disclosure requirements of the Holding Foreign Companies Accountable Act (the “HFCA Act”) that became effective in December 2020.  The amendments will become effective 30 days after publication in the Federal Register.  They apply to public companies (each, a “Commission-Identified Issuer”) that are identified by the SEC as having filed an annual report that includes an audit report issued by a registered public accounting firm that (1) has a branch or office located in a foreign jurisdiction and (2) the PCAOB has determined it is unable to inspect or investigate completely because of a position taken by an authority in that jurisdiction.  The SEC will be responsible for identifying such companies, and the PCAOB will be required to identify audit firms that have a location in such a foreign jurisdiction.

Annual Report Amendments.  The new requirements will be implemented (1) with respect to Form 10-K, by the addition of Part II, Item 9C, and (2) with respect to Form 20-F, by the addition of Part II, Item 161.  Each new item will be captioned “Disclosure Regarding Foreign Jurisdictions that Prevent Inspections.”

New Submission Requirement – Commission-Identified Issuers.  The new rules refer to any year in which the SEC identifies a company as a Commission-Identified Issuer as a “non-inspection year.”  The interim final amendments will require that each Commission-Identified Issuer submit, on or

Don’t Delay: SEC Wants Your Two Cents on Climate Change Disclosure

The SEC recently issued a public statement asking investors, companies and other market participants to share their views on climate change disclosure.  Comments are due by June 13, 2021 and can be submitted via the SEC webform or email.  In addition to, or in lieu of, written submissions, the SEC staff is also willing to meet with members of the public to discuss their feedback.

The SEC generally will post submissions on www.sec.gov, so personal identifying information should not be included in written feedback. The SEC encouraged commenters to include empirical data and other information in support of their comments. Original data may assist the SEC in assessing the materiality of climate-related disclosures, and the costs and benefits of different regulatory approaches to climate disclosure.

The public statement contains 15 multipart questions for consideration, including the key excerpts set out below.  Please refer to the public statement for the full text of the questions.

  • How can the Commission best regulate, monitor, review, and guide climate change disclosures in order to provide more consistent, comparable, and reliable information for investors while also providing greater clarity to companies as to what is expected of them? Where and how should such disclosures be provided?
  • What information related to climate risks can be quantified and measured?  Are there specific metrics on which all companies should report? How have companies or investors analyzed risks and costs associated with climate change? What are companies doing internally to evaluate or project climate scenarios,
  • SEC Acting Chair Announces Sweeping Climate and ESG Initiatives, New Regulatory Priorities and Potential Rollback of Recent Rule Changes

    In a speech on March 15, 2021, Allison Herren Lee, Acting Chair of the SEC, reported on the steps the SEC is taking to meet investors’ growing demand for climate and ESG information, stating that “no single issue has been more pressing for me” and that “climate and ESG are front and center for the SEC.”  She observed that there has been a shift in capital towards ESG and sustainable investment strategies, and that ESG risks and metrics increasingly affect investment decision-making.

    Lee indicated that the SEC will devote substantial resources to investor protection initiatives that extend beyond, but are mutually reinforcing of, the SEC’s climate and ESG initiatives.  She noted that these other initiatives include, among others, ensuring strong and clear standards for broker-dealers, taking a “hard look” at the effects of the continuing flow of capital away from the public markets and proceeding with equity market structure reforms.  Reflecting the change in administration and SEC leadership, she noted that this may result in undoing some recently adopted rules and/or guidance.

    Highlights of Acting Chair Lee’s speech follow:

    Improving Climate and ESG Disclosures.  Lee noted that the SEC’s fundamental role with respect to climate and ESG is helping ensure that material information gets into the market in a timely manner.  She believes the SEC’s current voluntary framework for climate and ESG disclosures neither ensures that result nor meets investor demands; as a result, the SEC has begun taking steps to create a mandatory and comprehensive ESG disclosure framework

    SEC Acting Director Coates proposes framework for future ESG rulemaking

    Yesterday, John Coates, the acting director of the SEC’s Division of Corporation Finance, announced a proposed framework for considering new ESG disclosure requirements, recognizing that while the scope of ESG issues is very broad, specific ESG issues affect particular companies differently based on industry, geography and other factors.

    Need for “adaptive and innovative” policy

    Coates compared ESG issues to asbestos-related risks, which evolved from invisible “non-financial” risks that were not addressed in SEC filings to visible and eventually clear financial risks that were increasingly disclosed in companies’ filings.  He believes that SEC policy needs to be adaptive and innovative and, for example, respond to climate risks that were formerly peripheral and now have greater significance.

    Effective ESG disclosure system

    Coates believes some of the questions the SEC should consider include:

    • What disclosures are most useful?
    • What is the right balance between principles and metrics?
    • How much standardization can be achieved across industries?
    • How and when should standards evolve?
    • What is the best way to verify or provide assurance about disclosures?
    • Where and how should disclosures be globally comparable?
    • Where and how can disclosures be aligned with information companies already use to make decisions?

    Costs from having no ESG requirements

    Although recognizing that disclosure requirements impose costs on companies, Coates believes that failing to establish ESG requirements is itself costly – that the lack of consistent, comparable and reliable ESG data discourages investment and voting decisions.  Companies incur higher costs in responding to multiple, conflicting or redundant investor

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