September 24, 2021

Enforcement: SEC Investigates Human Capital Disclosures

Earlier this week, Activision Blizzard confirmed media reports that it was the subject of an SEC investigation concerning “the company’s disclosures regarding employment matters and related issues.”  Regardless of its outcome, the SEC’s decision to pursue such an investigation has proven to be controversial. After all, when was the last time that allegations relating to employment practices caught the eye of the Division of Enforcement?

In defending the investigation, some have observed that the workplace misconduct allegations against the company may call into question the accuracy of the human capital disclosures that appeared in its Form 10-K. But UCLA’s Stephen Bainbridge suggests that the SEC’s investigation represents a revival of the agency’s long-ago abandoned efforts to persuade courts to compel disclosure of uncharged wrongdoing.  Here’s an excerpt from his recent blog on the investigation:

Obviously, the SEC will claim that it is about Activision’s allegedly deficient disclosures relating to its Human Resources practices. But even if we accept that risible claim at face value, the SEC is still overstepping its bounds. It’s critical that Activision management has not been convicted of any civil or criminal violations. If they had been, it would be arguable that failing to disclose those convictions would be a material omission (obviously, I realize that one is not convicted of civil violations, but I’m using it as a shorthand).

Where plaintiff complains of noncriminal conduct allegedly constituting mismanagement, courts have been unwilling to require disclosure. In Amalgamated Clothing and Textile Workers Union, AFL―CIO v. J. P. Stevens & Co., 475 F. Supp. 328 (S.D.N.Y.1979), for example, plaintiffs argued that the board of directors had either knowingly violated the labor laws or, at least, failed to prevent management from doing so. According to plaintiffs, this alleged misconduct had harmed the corporation’s reputation and exposed it to liability. The failure to disclose these purported facts in connection with the election of the directors allegedly constituted an omission of material facts. In rejecting plaintiff’s argument, the court held that it would be “silly” to “require management to accuse itself of antisocial or illegal policies.”

Yet, that is precisely what the SEC investigation of Activision assumes management is required to do.

I’m inclined to sympathize with this argument, and I agree that efforts to expand the SEC’s authority beyond financial regulation involve the kind of “mission creep” that threatens its credibility.  But I think there’s an important difference between the SEC’s 1970s “qualitative materiality” crusade and situations like this one. Instead of trying to pluck disclosure duties from the ether, this time the SEC has a line-item in its quiver.

Risible or not, that line-item creates a duty to disclose material human capital information, which puts the substance of the disclosure that Activision provided squarely within the SEC’s jurisdiction. The SEC isn’t investigating an omission in search of some amorphous duty to disclose, but whether there were potential misstatements or omissions in response to line-item disclosures that the company was obligated to make.

There’s some irony in the fact that this “principles based” disclosure requirement is being cited as a jumping-off point for a renewed foray by the SEC into the qualitative materiality morass. After all, it was conservatives who championed this “DIY” approach to human capital disclosure, while liberals called for detailed line-item requirements addressing specific metrics. The SEC’s reliance on the new disclosure requirement to investigate conduct that’s pretty far from the core focus of the securities laws suggests that, in the end, the flexibility provided by principles based disclosure requirements may give companies just enough rope to hang themselves.

John Jenkins