March 27, 2019

Shareholder Proposals on Arbitration: “Heigh-Ho! Heigh-Ho! It’s Off to Court We Go!”

We’ve been following the saga of the “man bites dog” shareholder proposal asking Johnson & Johnson to adopt a bylaw mandating arbitration of securities claims.  Last month, the Staff granted the company’s request to exclude the proposal from its proxy statement on the grounds that its implementation would violate applicable state law.

SEC Chair Jay Clayton weighed in with his own statement on this controversial topic, in which he at one point suggested that a court would be a “more appropriate venue to seek a binding determination of whether a shareholder proposal can be excluded.” Cooley’s Cydney Posner reports that the proponent seems to have taken his advice – because the dispute is now in the hands of a NJ federal court.  This excerpt from her recent blog summarizes the proponent’s arguments:

The proponent argued that the proposal would not cause the company to violate federal law, because “the Federal Arbitration Act requires the enforcement of arbitration agreements, and Johnson & Johnson has been unable to identify any federal statute that ‘manifest[s] a clear intention to displace the Arbitration Act.’”

Nor, according to the proponent, would the proposal cause the company to violate NJ state law because “neither Johnson & Johnson nor the New Jersey Attorney General has identified any New Jersey statute or court decision that prohibits the enforcement of the arbitration agreements,” and, even if the NJ courts declined to enforce, that still would not mean that including the provision in the company’s bylaws would amount to a violation of NJ law.

That is, a “company does not ‘violate’ state law by entering into an arbitration agreement that happens to be unenforceable under the law of that state.” Finally, even if state law were shown to prohibit enforcement, it would be preempted by the Federal Arbitration Act and void. The proponent also stated that he intends to submit the “proposal again for the 2020 shareholder meeting, and it will continue submitting this proposal each year until the proposal is adopted by the shareholders.”

The proponent is seeking a declaratory judgment that J&J violated the securities laws by excluding the proposal, along with injunctive relief that would, among other things, require the company to include the proposal in supplemental proxy materials.

Audit Committees: PCAOB Promises More Communications

One of the perceived shortcomings of the PCAOB’s inspection process is that it sometimes reaches problematic conclusions about an accounting firm’s audit of a company without any input from the company itself. According to this recent annual “Staff Inspections Outlook for Audit Committees,” the PCAOB plans to increase its engagement with audit committees. Here’s an excerpt:

During 2019, we will provide an opportunity for audit committee chairs of certain companies whose audits are subject to inspection to engage in a dialogue with the inspections staff. The purpose of the audit committee dialogue is to provide further insight into our process and obtain their views. We expect to publish additional updates to audit committees regarding our inspections to provide observations from these interviews and our inspection findings.

The PCAOB went on to review its 2019 inspection priorities, and raised various topics – including sample questions – that audit committees might want to address with their auditors that relate to current issues of inspection focus.

Audit Committees: What If The PCAOB Calls?

So, what should you do if the PCAOB reaches out to your audit committee chair? This excerpt from a recent Stinson Leonard Street blog says you should watch your step:

We believe issuers should approach any such engagement cautiously, if at all. Perhaps the only circumstance for which this may be appropriate is upon assurance by the PCAOB that the inspection of the issuer is complete and final and no potential deficiencies were identified. Even then, issuers should consider whether there is any benefit to the dialogue. It is especially worth consideration because the PCAOB also announced it intends to publish additional updates to audit committees regarding its inspections including observations from these interviews and its inspection findings.

The blog points out that inspection findings can lead to restatements & potential liability for companies. Furthermore, issuers have no control over how the PCAOB will characterize the results of their engagement with the public. That means there is a risk that the audit committee chair or the company could be cast in a negative light.

The need to prepare for a possible phone call from the PCAOB may help address the chronic problem of audit committees sitting around with nothing to do, but if more assistance in keeping your committee busy is needed, check out this helpful list from PwC of 11,284 things that the audit committee should keep in mind for the end of the current fiscal quarter.

John Jenkins