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Public Companies Beware of SEC’s Continuing Interest in Accounting and Disclosure Cases

As the end of the quarter approaches for most public companies, it is important to keep in mind that the SEC’s Enforcement Division has brought numerous cases alleging financial and disclosure fraud in the past year.  Many of the cases stem from efforts to meet analysts’ earnings expectations by recognizing revenue prematurely or underreporting expenses and reserves.  Some of the notable matters include:

  • a case against a technology company alleging that it accelerated sales originally scheduled for future quarters, thereby masking declining market conditions,
  • a case against a large insurance company alleging that it underreported reserves, and
  • a case against a publicly traded REIT, alleging that it improperly adjusted “same property net operating income,” a non-GAAP metric.

Allegations in some of the other cases involved:

  • recognizing revenue when there were undisclosed side agreements enabling distributors to return product, or when getting paid was conditioned on the distributor’s sale to an end user,
  • inflating the value of a portfolio of complex reverse mortgage bonds, and
  • failing to correct an error in accounting for FX losses.

The cases are usually accompanied by allegations of books and records violations and significant deficiencies in internal controls.  The SEC almost always imposes multi-million dollar penalties on the companies and brings charges against the individuals the SEC deems responsible for the misstatements, which usually includes CEOs, CFOs and Controllers.

Financial reporting involves judgment calls that can be difficult to make.  It is important that the company’s motivation is accuracy and transparency in

U.S. Companies Assess Ripple Impact of COVID-19 on their Business and Incentive Plan Metrics

As we near the end of second quarter 2020, companies are evaluating the ripple effect COVID-19 has had and will likely continue to have on their businesses as a result of worker layoffs, shelter-in-place orders, employee health and safety matters, supply chain and counterparty risk issues and decreased product demand, among other things.

One key area of focus for many companies and compensation committees will be assessing the impact of COVID-19 on incentive plan performance award targets, many of which were set in February before the pandemic hit the United States and may now be unattainable. Most companies will want to keep their executive and management teams striving for potentially new and adjusted goals that the new environment requires. How to go about reflecting and rewarding key employees for performance around these changes becomes challenging when awards for the performance period have already been granted.

Some companies have viewed their performance awards as long-term in nature and have maintained existing performance targets in spite of changed circumstances. Others see a need for changes. The approaches will depend on each company’s particular compensation philosophy and structure, the amounts and types of awards that have been granted, the extent and manner in which the business and existing targets have been affected, and other motivating criteria at issue.

On approach that companies have considered in connection with their annual awards is to adjust the performance targets based on currently available information so as to reflect changing expectations. This approach is relatively straightforward. A

Emergency Bylaws – Considerations in Light of the COVID-19 Pandemic and Beyond

June 15, 2020

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Among the many previously hypothetical concerns for companies that became actualized, or threatened to become actualized, during the height of the COVID-19 pandemic was the prospect of multiple members of the board or senior management becoming incapacitated due to serious illness.

With an average age of S&P 500 directors hovering around 63 according to recent surveys, many public company directors fall within the higher risk age ranges for more severe COVID-19 complications. This heightens the concern that the board and/or its committees may not be able to comply with, among other things, the quorum requirements in the company’s bylaws or pursue action by unanimous written consent due to sustained periods where multiple directors are incapacitated.

Emergency Bylaws as Potential Remedy:

One potential way to address this concern is through the adoption of so-called “emergency bylaw” provisions.  State law will, of course, govern whether and what types of emergency bylaw provisions may be available.  Based on a recent review of S&P 500 company filings, approximately 22% of such companies have adopted emergency bylaw provisions in some form, and approximately 1% have adopted specific emergency bylaw provisions in the last 120 days, presumably in the context of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Delaware law, specifically Section 110 of the Delaware General Corporation Law (the “DGCL”), allows for such emergency-related bylaw provisions. Section 110(a) of the DGCL has a distinct Cold War flavor, appropriate to the time it was adopted.  It provides that the board may adopt emergency bylaws, subject to repeal or change by

COVID-19 Business Risk Management: Addressing Counter-Party Risk

June 11, 2020

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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.  In a series of ongoing posts to our Retail Law blog, our restructuring and special situations team provides a useful paradigm for analysis and action.  The points made in this series are equally applicable to companies in many other industries.

Our special situations team discusses the importance of getting the finance and legal functions of the business on the same page as the sourcing and sales functions.  As they point out, to be effective with mitigation, all parts of the business need to quickly align in terms of identifying the level of risk each counterparty poses to the business (and how that counterparty’s inability to pay or deliver goods/services will impact the overall business).  In doing so, companies will be better able to allocate scarce resources to counterparties that pose the greatest degree of near-term risk while carefully watching future performance through the same filtered lens.  To help think about the analysis, the team has created a Heat Grid for Triaging Counter-Party Risk that can serve as a one-page resource.

Companies should look both at their customers and their suppliers in assessing risk and addressing mitigation measures.  The point is to be intentional about better assessing particular customer or supplier risk, putting processes in place

U.S. – Significant Increase in Complaints Brings Potential for Increased SEC Whistleblowing Activity

Among the myriad quarantine pursuits undertaken by the work-from-home crowd, whistleblowing appears to be proving popular. Recent reports indicate that the SEC received more than 4,000 Tips, Complaints, and Referrals (“TCRs”) regarding possible corporate malfeasance between mid-March and mid-May.  As noted by Division of Enforcement Co-Director Steve Peikin in a recent speech, that represents an approximate 35% increase over the same period last year.  This surge in TCRs has resulted in the SEC initiating hundreds of new investigations of alleged misconduct in the contexts both of COVID-19 and many other traditional areas.  After already facing challenges from the coronavirus pandemic, many employers may be surprised by this new COVID-19 side-effect.

Under the SEC’s Whistleblower Program, individuals who report TCRs containing high-quality original information that results in financial relief exceeding $1 million may be eligible for monetary awards ranging from 10% to 30% of that relief.  Since the Program’s inception, tips have resulted in more than $2 billion in financial relief, and more than $500 million in related whistleblower awards.  These figures include the recent record award of nearly $50 million to a single whistleblower on June 4, 2020.  Some have attributed the surge in TCRs to a combination of increasingly rich award sums, potential TCR filers’ being emboldened by their remote work environments and/or harboring increasing frustration over their job or financial situations, and enmity by furloughed or terminated employees.

Regardless of its cause, the increase in TCRs means that issuers and regulated entities should evaluate their

U.S. SEC Enforcement Division Pursues Coronavirus-Related Fraud Claims

June 5, 2020

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Federal, state and local law enforcement and consumer protection agencies have been issuing alerts and investigating cases regarding efforts by fraudsters to exploit the coronavirus crisis for profit.  The SEC is taking similar action, focused on the use of public securities markets to carry out fraud.

Since the onset of coronavirus, or COVID-19, the SEC has suspended  trading in the stock of more than 30 companies in connection with coronavirus-related fraud, pursuant to its authority to suspend trading temporarily where it believes that information about a company is unreliable or inaccurate.

And the SEC’s Enforcement Division in recent weeks has brought enforcement  actions in several cases alleging fraudulent statements regarding coronavirus products designed to boost a company’s share price.  The actions were brought against smaller companies issuing releases with false claims about products and services likely to be in high demand because of the pandemic, such as virus tests, hand sanitizer and masks.  The statements are alleged to cause rapid increases in stock price and volume, and are alleged to violate section 10(b) of the Securities Exchange Act of 1934 and rule 10b-5.

The SEC’s latest coronavirus-related complaint, filed this week in the Southern District of Florida, involved a different fact pattern. It charged an investment adviser, E*Hedge Securities, Inc., and its CEO with violations of the Investment Advisers Act of 1940 for failure to produce books and records in the course of an SEC investment-adviser examination, and for failure to properly register under the Act.  E*Hedge on March 22,

Frustrations Emerge Over Lack of Clear ESG Disclosure Standards Among Patchwork of Providers

Fallout from the COVID-19 pandemic appears to be sharpening some investors’ focus on ESG (Environmental, Social or Governance) matters, as evidenced by the SEC Investor Advisory Committee’s recent recommendation that the SEC mandate disclosure of “material, decision-useful, ESG factors” as relevant to each company.

The desire for more clarity around ESG disclosure is understandable.  More than a dozen non-profit and for-profit ESG data providers have emerged in this complex, booming market, according to a May 28, 2020 webinar of the Sustainability Accounting Standards Board and the Society for Corporate Governance.  The data providers generally fall into four distinct groups:  (1) providers who publish guidance for voluntary ESG disclosure, often with company feedback; (2) providers who request data from companies using questionnaires and then based on the answers issue reports or ESG ratings; (3) providers who compile publicly available ESG data about companies and issue ESG ratings based only on that publicly available information; and (4) providers who create assessments of companies based on public and/or private information to sell to investors.

Under the current patchwork, a public company can be the subject of an ESG assessment without knowledge that it occurred or an opportunity to give input or correct misperceptions, particularly in situations where the company has very limited ESG disclosures because ESG issues were not deemed material and not required to be disclosed under SEC rules.  For public companies trying to navigate the maze of ESG issues and disclosures, frustration can easily emerge.  The different ESG assessment

PPP Loan Recipients: And Now Liability Risks under the False Claims Act?

Borrowers under the Paycheck Protection Program (“PPP”), particularly those public companies who received more than $2 million, are juggling a lot these days.  Watching the ever shifting positions of the SBA with respect to eligibility, carefully applying loan proceeds, properly applying for loan forgiveness, preparing for SBA loan reviews, coordinating with existing lenders and other stakeholders, making required current and quarterly disclosures, and attending to liquidity and business continuation risks would seem too much for most mortals.  Now, those who monitor and advise with respect to fraud risk warn that an emerging significant risk to PPP loan recipients is the False Claims Act (FCA) – and more particularly, being the target of a private whistleblower who initiates a qui tam suit alleging fraud in connection with a PPP loan.

In a recent two-part series, we explored issues related to PPP loans and the FCA and provided guidance on mitigating fraud allegation risks.  The FCA imposes civil liability on individuals and companies that defraud the federal government.  In addition, many states also have their own FCA laws.  The FCA provides for the recovery of the funds fraudulently obtained, damages up to triple the amount of those funds, and potentially high monetary penalties for each false claim submitted.  The aggregate potential liability far exceeds the amount initially received from the government.  And because this is a civil liability, the standard for proving fraud under the FCA is significantly less than under a criminal statute.  The standard under the FCA is

New PPP Loan Forgiveness and Loan Review Interim Final Rules: SBA May Review Any PPP Loan, Regardless of Size, Concerning Forgiveness, Use of Proceeds and Eligibility

The SBA released a set of interim final rules to provide additional guidance and clarity to borrowers and lenders both for loan forgiveness and for SBA loan review procedures under the Paycheck Protection Program (“PPP”).  The loan forgiveness interim final rule supplements the guidance provided by the actual PPP loan forgiveness application previously published by the SBA, providing timing information and allocating responsibilities as between the lender and the borrower.  The SBA loan review procedures interim final rule sheds little additional light on what borrowers should expect, but does provide additional guidance for lenders with respect to their role in the review process.

With respect to the SBA review process, the interim final rule makes clear that the SBA may choose to review any PPP loan, regardless of size, concerning not only forgiveness amounts and use of proceeds, but also eligibility in the first instance.  The SBA previously announced a safe harbor of sorts for any borrower of less than $2 million regarding the “necessity” certification.  The SBA included in its Frequently Asked Questions FAQ #46 that “[a]ny borrower that, together with its affiliates, received PPP loans with an original principal amount of less than $2 million will be deemed to have made the required certification concerning the necessity of the loan request in good faith.”  No mention was made of this safe harbor, or the related statement in FAQ #46 that if a borrower repays a PPP loan after a determination by the SBA that

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

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