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Good News: SEC Allows Electronic Signatures in Authentication Documents

The SEC recently approved amendments to Rule 302(b) of Regulation S-T, which governs the signing of “authentication documents” relating to typewritten signatures included in documents that are filed with the SEC electronically via EDGAR.  Current Rule 302(b) requires that, prior to or at the time of such a filing, each signatory manually sign a signature page (or other document) “authenticating, acknowledging or otherwise adopting his or her signature that appears in typed form within the electronic filing.”  Rule 302(b), as amended, will for the first time allow a signatory to use an electronic signature (as an alternative to a manual signature) on any such authentication document, provided certain requirements are met, as described below.

Effective Date.  The amendments will become effective upon publication in the Federal Register.  Following approval of the amendments, however, the SEC staff issued a statement indicating that, in light of COVID-19 concerns, early reliance on and compliance with amended Rule 302(b) is permitted.

Attestation Document (New).  Before using an electronic signature in an authentication document for the first time, a signatory will be required to manually sign a document attesting that he or she agrees that the use of an electronic signature in any authentication document will be the legal equivalent of such individual’s manual signature.

Electronic Signature Procedures.  In connection with the amendments, the SEC updated the EDGAR Filer Manual to set out the procedures that are required to be followed before an electronic signature may be used in an authentication document.  The electronic signing

Modernizing Regulation S-K Amendments – Transitional FAQs from the SEC

As covered in our blog post dated August 26, 2020, the SEC recently adopted amendments to Regulation S-K Items 101 (business description), 103 (legal proceedings), and 105 (risk factors) aimed at modernizing disclosure requirements.  The amended rules became effective on November 9, 2020.

The SEC Staff (the “Staff”) recently published three transitional FAQs addressing questions that have arisen regarding the amendments:

FAQ (1) – Applicability of Amended Items 101, 103 and 105 to Form S-3 Prospectus Supplements Filed on or after November 9, 2020.

  • The Staff confirmed that because Form S-3 requires only incorporation by reference – and not express disclosure – under Items 101 and 103, a registrant is not required to comply with amended Items 101 and 103 when, on or after November 9, 2020, it files a prospectus supplement to a Form S-3 registration statement that became effective prior to November 9, 2020. The registrant also is not required to amend the Form 10-K that is incorporated by reference into the Form S-3 to comply with amended Items 101 and 103.
  • The Staff noted that because Form S-3 requires that Item 105 disclosure be expressly included (i.e., the disclosure cannot be incorporated by reference), Securities Act Rule 401(a) would ordinarily require that the prospectus supplement comply with amended Item 105. The Staff indicated that it will not object, however, if the prospectus supplement is filed without amending the Form S-3 to comply with amended Item 105.  The registrant will, however, be required to comply with amended

New SEC Enforcement Priorities Likely Under Biden Administration

November 18, 2020

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BCLP Washington Partner Ashley Ebersole was quoted Nov. 13 by Compliance Week regarding possible new enforcement priorities at the Securities and Exchange Commission under a Biden administration. Much will hinge on selection of a new SEC chairman, as current Chairman Jay Clayton has announced his intent to step down at year end before his term officially is scheduled to end in June 2021. “Selection of the new SEC chair, whether from inside the agency or outside, will signal much in terms of the likely approach,” said Ebersole, a former SEC attorney. He also noted that compliance officers “should be prepared for a continued SEC enforcement focus on pursuing fraud involving Main Street investors, but also a likely redoubling of efforts to sanction conduct by financial institutions.”

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

SEC Modernizes Framework for Exempt Offerings

In another 3-2 vote, on November 2, 2020 the SEC approved significant amendments to the framework for exempt offerings intended to harmonize and simplify the framework for exempt offerings under the Securities Act of 1933.  The amendments:

  • Simplified the “integration doctrine” that restricts the ability of issuers to move or switch from one exemption to another
  • Permit certain “demo day” and “test-the-waters” communications, and clarify other rules on communications
  • Increase the offering limits for certain offerings and individual investment
  • Harmonize certain disclosure and eligibility requirements and bad actor disqualifications

We have prepared a client alert describing the amendments that can be found here.

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

Records are Made to be Broken

October 28, 2020

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Records are Made to be Broken

October 28, 2020

Authored by: Ashley Ebersole

On the heels of a nearly $50 million record whistleblower payout in June 2020, the Securities and Exchange Commission announced on October 22 that it shattered that mark by awarding a whistleblower an extraordinary $114 million bounty. As described in the press release, the total included $52 million from the SEC, and a $62 million sum from “related actions by another [unspecified] agency.” The SEC’s Order further detailed that though the award arose from an action that was the subject of submissions from four would-be whistleblowers, the only payout was made to a whistleblower who (i) internally reported his or her concerns, (ii) provided information that caused the SEC and other agency to open investigations into the wrongdoing, (iii) provided “substantial and ongoing assistance” throughout the investigation that saved government time and resources, and (iv) suffered “serious personal and professional hardships” as a result of the whistleblowing activity. The SEC provided scant information on the target or substance of the underlying enforcement action, but the record award comes one month after the agency enacted amendments to its rules that were intended to “further incentivize whistleblowers” – something it would seem to be underscoring with windfall payments.

DOJ Releases Framework for Cryptocurrency Enforcement

On October 8, 2020, the U.S. Department of Justice (“DOJ”) released the publication “Cryptocurrency: An Enforcement Framework,” (“Framework”) which described emerging threats and enforcement challenges associated with cryptocurrency. DOJ’s Cyber-Digital Task Force produced the Framework to highlight important relationships DOJ has built with other domestic and international regulatory and enforcement partners, and its strategic response to address emerging issues concerning cryptocurrency and the “blockchain” or “distributed ledger” technology underlying it.  The Framework’s stated goal is to ensure that cryptocurrencies and associated technologies are safe and do not imperil public safety or national security. While DOJ explicitly recognizes cryptocurrency’s potential in the Framework, it also outlines both threats and illicit opportunities that cryptocurrency provides for nefarious actors.

For a full discussion of the Framework, please refer to this BCLP client alert co-authored by Ashley Ebersole, Ben Saul, Mark Sere and Jason Semmes.

SEC Charges Andeavor LLC With Stock Buyback Controls Violations

On October 15, 2020, the Securities and Exchange Commission (“SEC”) announced settled charges against U.S. refiner Andeavor LLC (“Andeavor”) for inadequate controls related to a stock buyback plan it executed while it was in talks to be acquired by Marathon Petroleum Corp. in 2018. Without admitting the SEC’s findings, Andeavor agreed to pay a $20 million penalty to settle the charges.

According to the SEC, in March of 2017 Andeavor’s then-Chairman and CEO began confidential discussion with Marathon’s Chairman and CEO about a potential business combination. After months of analysis regarding the potential synergies that a combined company would produce, the CEOs agreed to suspend their discussions. Then in February 2018, just two days before a meeting to resume talks about a potential deal, Andeavor’s CEO directed its then-CFO to initiate a share buyback to repurchase $250 million of shares. The SEC found that Andeavor’s internal accounting controls failed to ensure the buyback adhered to the company’s securities trading policy, a policy that prohibited repurchases while the company was in possession of material non-public information.

Andeavor used an abbreviated and informal process to evaluate whether the requirements for the buyback were satisfied. That process did not require conferring with persons reasonably likely to have material non-public information about corporate developments prior to approval of the share repurchase. As a result, no one involved in Andeavor’s process discussed with Andeavor’s CEO the prospects that Andeavor and Marathon would agree to a deal. Because they did not do so, the company

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
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