SEC Rethinks Proxy Access Rules

In a surprising action mid-January, the SEC reversed a decision issued in December of last year on what’s known as proxy access rules.

Proxy access rules define who can and how to submit proposals to public companies for inclusion in the company’s proxy statement. They also describe under what circumstances companies can exclude those shareholder proposals which is the specific issue in the SEC decision reversal.

The battle over these rules has been raging for several years as illustrated by my earlier article on this subject (click here).

Corporations and their counsels had declared victory when they defeated an SEC proposal which would have created clear conditions requiring companies to include shareholder proposals in their proxies. This left companies with great discretion over whether to include shareholder proposals.

To further protect companies, many requested “no-action letters” from the SEC indicating that the SEC wouldn’t challenge the company’s decision on its treatment of the specific shareholder proxy submissions.

This was the status quo until last week (January 15) when the SEC withdrew its “no-action letter” issued to Whole Foods and announced that the SEC was re-evaluating its position on proxy access rules and related “no-action letters”.

The SEC has come under increasing criticism for its inaction on the topic since the defeat of its proposal (see article link above). With shareholder activism gaining greater mainstream acceptance, large institutional investors, including the New York City Comptroller’s Office, which oversees funds with $160 billion in assets, have lobbied the SEC to support greater shareholder influence in proxy content.

The decision to reverse the issuance of the Whole Foods “no-action letter” doesn’t indicate how the SEC will decide on the issue of proxy access rules. The SEC has announced, simply, that it is evaluating its position. Companies rightly fear, however, that it may signal that the current environment favorable to companies may change.

The New York Times “Dealbook” has a good article on this topic (click here).

Sheppard Mullin, the law firm, also issued a good article (click here).

A couple public companies have excluded shareholder provisions despite withdrawal of no-action letters by the SEC (click here) for article by Stinson Leonard Street, the law firm.