February 8, 2019

Shareholder Proposals: NYC Comptroller Seeks to Compel Inclusion in Court!

Over the years, Broc has blogged about periodic attempts by shareholder proponents of going to court to compel the inclusion of a proposal and/or seek declaratory relief to enjoin an annual meeting due to shareholder proposal issues. These types of lawsuits typically challenged a company’s decision to exclude a proposal after Corp Fin granted no-action relief. But recently, the NYC Comptroller went one step further – by filing this complaint against TransDigm shortly after it sought no-action relief – and before Corp Fin weighed in.

The lawsuit sought to enjoin TransDigm – which manufactures aerospace components – from soliciting proxies for its meeting without including a climate change proposal submitted by a group of NYC pension funds. TransDigm had argued to Corp Fin that it could exclude the proposal under Rule 14a-8(i)(7) because it related to “ordinary business.” But the funds – which announced a couple of years ago that they might pursue climate change proposals as an initiative and more recently said they’d pursue a “clean energy” investment & divestment strategy – insisted that this was an urgent matter. Cydney Posner’s blog explains what happened next:

Instead of conforming to the usual practice of submitting its own response to the SEC, the NYC Comptroller’s office wrote to the SEC on December 7th that it would not respond to the company’s November request for no-action because the pension funds had separately commenced a lawsuit against the company seeking declaratory and injunctive relief “that would ensure the… shareholder proposal is included in the proxy solicitation materials.” As a result, in light of the pending litigation, the Comptroller requested that the SEC leave the matter to the courts, requesting that, the “staff follow its prior practice and decline to issue any response to TransDigm’s no-action request.”

The company apparently decided that this was not a battle worth fighting. By letter dated December 28, 2018, in the midst of the government shutdown, the company advised Corp Fin that it was withdrawing its request for no-action relief and would be including the proposal in its 2019 proxy materials. The parties filed a stipulation of settlement on January 18 concluding the action.

In its press release announcing the settlement, the Comptroller said that the “need for climate leadership is more urgent than ever. Yet, just when we need to speed up the pace, federal roll-backs are making polluting easier and could cause generations of damage. That’s why as investors, we’re using our voice to pressure companies to step up and address their role in climate change….Reducing greenhouse gas emissions is a moral imperative—and it’s better for business. We’ll continue to fight for shareholders rights and to hold companies like TransDigm to the highest standards for business and our planet.”

We don’t know yet if the NYC funds will adopt – or inspire other proponents to adopt – a litigation strategy against other companies for climate change proposals and/or other topics. Although the complaint was filed before the government shutdown began, the company might’ve felt additional pressure to settle due to Corp Fin’s inability to respond to no-action requests.

SEC Chair Talks About “Human Capital” Disclosure

In remarks a few days ago to the SEC Investor Advisory Committee, SEC Chair Jay Clayton provided some of his views on human capital disclosure. He first noted that since the time the current disclosure requirements in Items 101 & 102 of Regulation S-K were adopted, human capital has evolved into a resource – rather than a cost – for businesses. And, he acknowledged, disclosure requirements should also evolve over time to reflect market changes…but should remain flexible, enforceable, efficient and grounded in materiality.

So the basic idea stands that companies should focus on providing material information that a reasonable investor needs to make informed investment & voting decisions, and he’s wary of mandating rigid disclosure standards or metrics. But it doesn’t sound like he’s closed the door on nudging companies to provide more info. He continued:

Instead, I think investors would be better served by understanding the lens through which each company looks at their human capital. Does management focus on the rate of turnover, the percentage of their workforce with advanced degrees or relevant experience, the ease or difficulty of filling open positions, or some other factors? I have heard this and similar questions on earnings conference calls and in other investor settings. I am interested in hearing from those on the Committee who manage investment capital – what is it that you are looking for as an investor and what questions do you ask the issuers when it comes to human capital?

Here, a note on comparability. In some cases it is possible to identify metrics that provide for reasonable market-wide comparability (for example, U.S. GAAP). In other cases, this is not possible at a market-wide level, and comparability is reasonably possible at an industry level or only at a company level (this is demonstrated by the development of non-GAAP financial measures). For example, for human capital, I believe it is important that the metrics allow for period to period comparability for the company.

This Cooley blog reports that Jay also touched on proxy plumbing in his remarks – and said that new Commissioner Elad Roisman will be taking the lead on efforts to improve the proxy process, including proxy plumbing, for both the short- and long-term.

SEC Lifts Stay on Administrative Proceedings

Last week, the SEC announced that it was lifting the stay on pending administrative proceedings that it had ordered as a result of the lengthy government shutdown. Parties that had filings due last month should either submit the filings or request an extension – either way, by February 13th.

Liz Dunshee