November 4, 2021

Shareholder Proposals: New Staff Legal Bulletin a Game Changer for ESG-Related Proposals?

Yesterday, Corp Fin issued Staff Legal Bulletin 14L, which rescinds Staff Legal Bulletins 14I, 14J and 14K, and effectively takes a sledgehammer to four years of interpretive guidance on the exclusion of ESG-related shareholder proposals from proxy statements. In doing so, the new SLB may open the door for the inclusion of a wide range of previously excludable ESG proposals.

SLB 14I was issued in 2017 and addressed, among other things, the scope & application of Rule14a-8(i)(5) (the “economic relevance” exception) & Rule 14a-8(i)(7) (the “ordinary business” exception). In SLB 14I, Corp Fin observed that the key issue in evaluating both the economic relevance and ordinary business exceptions was whether a particular proposal focused on a policy issue that was sufficiently significant to the company’s business, and called for the board’s analysis of the significance issue to be contained in any no-action request. SLB 14J & 14K subsequently provided further interpretive guidance on these topics, and also addressed in some detail when proposals may be excluded under the ordinary business exception because they involve “micromanagement.”

Yesterday’s action effectively trashes the approach to the economic relevance & ordinary business exclusions outlined in these SLBs. Instead, SLB 14L says that Corp Fin will return to its traditional approach to social policy proposals:

Going forward, the staff will realign its approach for determining whether a proposal relates to “ordinary business” with the standard the Commission initially articulated in 1976, which provided an exception for certain proposals that raise significant social policy issues, and which the Commission subsequently reaffirmed in the 1998 Release. This exception is essential for preserving shareholders’ right to bring important issues before other shareholders by means of the company’s proxy statement, while also recognizing the board’s authority over most day-to-day business matters.

For these reasons, staff will no longer focus on determining the nexus between a policy issue and the company, but will instead focus on the social policy significance of the issue that is the subject of the shareholder proposal. In making this determination, the staff will consider whether the proposal raises issues with a broad societal impact, such that they transcend the ordinary business of the company.

Under this realigned approach, proposals that the staff previously viewed as excludable because they did not appear to raise a policy issue of significance for the company may no longer be viewed as excludable under Rule 14a-8(i)(7). For example, proposals squarely raising human capital management issues with a broad societal impact would not be subject to exclusion solely because the proponent did not demonstrate that the human capital management issue was significant to the company.

In light of Corp Fin’s return to a non-company specific approach to the significance of a social policy issue, Corp Fin says that it will no longer expect a board analysis as described in the rescinded SLBs as part of demonstrating that the proposal is excludable under the ordinary business exclusion. SLB 14L adopts a similar approach to the economic relevance exclusion, and therefore will also no longer require a board analysis here either.

SLB 14L also addressed the micromanagement exclusion, and observed that the rescinded guidance may have been taken to mean that any limit on company or board discretion constitutes micromanagement. In doing so, Corp Fin noted that “specific methods, timelines, or detail do not necessarily amount to micromanagement and are not dispositive of excludability.”

It’s a certainty that there will be a lot of commentary in the coming weeks about how much of a departure SLB 14L represents from actual Staff practice versus what was laid out in the now rescinded SLBs. But in any event, Corp Fin seems to be sending a message that the proponents of ESG-related topics are likely to face a friendlier environment than they have in recent years. That’s a message that won’t be lost on those proponents, who still have plenty of time to submit proposals for next proxy season.

John Jenkins