Division of Corporation Finance
Securities and Exchange Commission
Staff Legal Bulletin No. 14B (CF)
Action: Publication of CF Staff Legal Bulletin
Date: September 15, 2004
Summary: This staff legal bulletin provides information for companies and shareholders regarding rule 14a-8 of the Securities Exchange Act of 1934.
Supplementary Information: The statements in this legal bulletin represent the views of the Division of Corporation Finance. This bulletin is not a rule, regulation, or statement of the Securities and Exchange Commission. Further, the Commission has neither approved nor disapproved its content.
Contacts: For further information, please contact the Office of Chief Counsel in the Division of Corporation Finance at (202) 942-2900.
A. What is the purpose of this bulletin?
On July 13, 2001, the Division of Corporation Finance published SLB No. 14 in order to:
- explain the rule 14a-8 no-action process, as well as our role in this process;
- provide guidance to companies and shareholders by expressing our views on some issues and questions that arise commonly under rule 14a-8; and
- suggest ways in which both companies and shareholder proponents can facilitate our review of no-action requests.
SLB No. 14 addressed primarily those procedural matters that are common to companies and shareholder proponents and discussed some substantive matters that are of interest to companies and shareholder proponents alike.
On July 12, 2002, the Division of Corporation Finance published SLB No. 14A. SLB No. 14A clarified our position on shareholder proposals related to equity compensation plans.
The purpose of this bulletin is to clarify and update some of the guidance that is included in SLB No. 14 and to provide additional guidance on issues that arise commonly under rule 14a-8. Specifically, this bulletin contains our views regarding:
- the application of rule 14a-8(i)(3);
- common issues regarding a company's notice of defect(s) to a shareholder proponent under rule 14a-8(f);
- the application of the 80-day requirement in rule 14a-8(j);
- opinions of counsel under rule 14a-8(j)(2)(iii); and
- processing matters relating to the availability of submitted materials and the mailing and public availability of our responses.
This bulletin includes a discussion of rule 14a-9 and its interaction with the operation of rule 14a-8. This discussion applies to our review of rule 14a-8 no-action requests only; it does not apply to other contexts, such as our review of disclosure contained in proxy statement filings and additional soliciting materials that may be considered materially false or misleading under rule 14a-9.
The references to "we," "our," and "us" are to the Division of Corporation Finance. You can find a copy of rule 14a-8 in Exchange Act Release No. 34-40018 (May 21, 1998), which is located on the Commission's website at www.sec.gov/rules/final/34-40018.htm. You can find a copy of SLB No. 14 on the Commission's website at www.sec.gov/interps/legal/cfslb14.htm. You can find a copy of SLB No. 14A on the Commission's website at www.sec.gov/interps/legal/cfslb14a.htm.
B. Under rule 14a-8(i)(3), when will the staff grant requests to exclude either all or part of a proposal or supporting statement based on false or misleading statements?
1. Rule 14a-8(i)(3)
Question 9 in rule 14a-8 reads, "If I have complied with the procedural requirements, on what other bases may a company rely to exclude my proposal?" Thirteen bases are then listed as answers to Question 9. The third basis, which is cited as rule 14a-8(i)(3), provides:
Violation of proxy rules: If the proposal or supporting statement is contrary to any of the Commission's proxy rules, including § 240.14a-9, which prohibits materially false or misleading statements in proxy materials.
It is important to note that rule 14a-8(i)(3), unlike the other bases for exclusion under rule 14a-8, refers explicitly to the supporting statement as well as the proposal as a whole. Accordingly, companies have relied on rule 14a-8(i)(3) to exclude portions of the supporting statement, even if the balance of the proposal and the supporting statement may not be excluded. Companies have requested that the staff concur in the appropriateness of excluding statements in reliance on rule 14a-8(i)(3) for a number of reasons, including the following:
- Vagueness Companies have argued that the proposal may be excluded in its entirety if the language of the proposal or the supporting statement render the proposal so vague and indefinite that neither the stockholders voting on the proposal, nor the company in implementing the proposal (if adopted), would be able to determine with any reasonable certainty exactly what actions or measures the proposal requires.
- Impugning Statements Companies have argued that they may exclude statements in a supporting statement because they fall within Note (b) to rule 14a-9, which states that "[m]aterial which directly or indirectly impugns character, integrity or personal reputation or directly or indirectly makes charges concerning improper, illegal or immoral conduct or associations, without factual foundation" is an example of "what, depending upon particular facts and circumstances, may be misleading within the meaning of [rule 14a-9]."
- Irrelevant Statements Companies have argued that they may exclude statements in a supporting statement because they are irrelevant to the subject matter of the proposal being presented. It is argued that it is appropriate to exclude these statements because they mislead shareholders by making unclear the nature of the matter on which they are being asked to vote.
- Opinions Presented as Fact Companies have argued that they may exclude statements in a supporting statement because they are presented as fact when they are the opinion of the shareholder proponent. It is argued that it is appropriate to exclude these statements because they are contrary to rule 14a-9 in that they may mislead shareholders into believing that the statements are fact and not opinion.
- Statements Without Factual Support Companies have argued that they may exclude statements in a supporting statement because they are presented as fact, but do not cite to a source that proves that statement. It is argued that it is appropriate to exclude these statements because they are contrary to rule 14a-9 in that they may be false and misleading and should be accompanied by a citation to permit shareholders to assess the context in which the source presented the information.
As we noted in SLB No. 14, we spend an increasingly large portion of our time and resources each proxy season responding to no-action requests regarding asserted deficiencies in terms of clarity, relevance, or accuracy in proposals and supporting statements.
2. Our approach to rule 14a-8(i)(3) no-action requests
As we noted in SLB No. 14, there is no provision in rule 14a-8 that allows a shareholder to revise his or her proposal and supporting statement. We have had, however, a long-standing practice of issuing no-action responses that permit shareholders to make revisions that are minor in nature and do not alter the substance of the proposal. We adopted this practice to deal with proposals that comply generally with the substantive requirements of rule 14a-8, but contain some minor defects that could be corrected easily. Our intent to limit this practice to minor defects was evidenced by our statement in SLB No. 14 that we may find it appropriate for companies to exclude the entire proposal, supporting statement, or both as materially false or misleading if a proposal or supporting statement would require detailed and extensive editing in order to bring it into compliance with the proxy rules.
3. The need to clarify our views under rule 14a-8(i)(3)
Unfortunately, our discussion of rule 14a-8(i)(3) in SLB No. 14 has caused the process for company objections and the staff's consideration of those objections to evolve well beyond its original intent. The discussion in SLB No. 14 has resulted in an unintended and unwarranted extension of rule 14a-8(i)(3), as many companies have begun to assert deficiencies in virtually every line of a proposal's supporting statement as a means to justify exclusion of the proposal in its entirety. Our consideration of those requests requires the staff to devote significant resources to editing the specific wording of proposals and, especially, supporting statements. During the last proxy season, nearly half the no-action requests we received asserted that the proposal or supporting statement was wholly or partially excludable under rule 14a-8(i)(3).
We believe that the staff's process of becoming involved in evaluating wording changes to proposals and/or supporting statements has evolved well beyond its original intent and resulted in an inappropriate extension of rule 14a-8(i)(3). In addition, we believe the process is neither appropriate under nor consistent with rule 14a-8(l)(2), which reads, "The company is not responsible for the contents of [the shareholder proponent's] proposal or supporting statement." Finally, we believe that current practice is not beneficial to participants in the process and diverts resources away from analyzing core issues arising under rule 14a-8.
4. Clarification of our views regarding the application of rule 14a-8(i)(3)
Accordingly, we are clarifying our views with regard to the application of rule 14a-8(i)(3). Specifically, because the shareholder proponent, and not the company, is responsible for the content of a proposal and its supporting statement, we do not believe that exclusion or modification under rule 14a-8(i)(3) is appropriate for much of the language in supporting statements to which companies have objected. Accordingly, going forward, we believe that it would not be appropriate for companies to exclude supporting statement language and/or an entire proposal in reliance on rule 14a-8(i)(3) in the following circumstances:
- the company objects to factual assertions because they are not supported;
- the company objects to factual assertions that, while not materially false or misleading, may be disputed or countered;
- the company objects to factual assertions because those assertions may be interpreted by shareholders in a manner that is unfavorable to the company, its directors, or its officers; and/or
- the company objects to statements because they represent the opinion of the shareholder proponent or a referenced source, but the statements are not identified specifically as such.
We believe that it is appropriate under rule 14a-8 for companies to address these objections in their statements of opposition.
There continue to be certain situations where we believe modification or exclusion may be consistent with our intended application of rule 14a-8(i)(3). In those situations, it may be appropriate for a company to determine to exclude a statement in reliance on rule 14a-8(i)(3) and seek our concurrence with that determination. Specifically, reliance on rule 14a-8(i)(3) to exclude or modify a statement may be appropriate where:
- statements directly or indirectly impugn character, integrity, or personal reputation, or directly or indirectly make charges concerning improper, illegal, or immoral conduct or association, without factual foundation;
- the company demonstrates objectively that a factual statement is materially false or misleading;
- the resolution contained in the proposal is so inherently vague or indefinite that neither the stockholders voting on the proposal, nor the company in implementing the proposal (if adopted), would be able to determine with any reasonable certainty exactly what actions or measures the proposal requires this objection also may be appropriate where the proposal and the supporting statement, when read together, have the same result; and
- substantial portions of the supporting statement are irrelevant to a consideration of the subject matter of the proposal, such that there is a strong likelihood that a reasonable shareholder would be uncertain as to the matter on which she is being asked to vote.
In this regard, rule 14a-8(i)(3) permits the company to exclude a proposal or a statement that is contrary to any of the proxy rules, including rule 14a-9, which prohibits materially false or misleading statements. Further, rule 14a-8(g) makes clear that the company bears the burden of demonstrating that a proposal or statement may be excluded. As such, the staff will concur in the company's reliance on rule 14a-8(i)(3) to exclude or modify a proposal or statement only where that company has demonstrated objectively that the proposal or statement is materially false or misleading.
C. What are common issues regarding companies' notices of defect(s)?
1. How should companies draft notices of defect(s)?
We put forth the following guidance in SLB No. 14 for companies to consider when drafting letters to notify shareholder proponents of eligibility or procedural defects:
- provide adequate detail about what the shareholder proponent must do to remedy the eligibility or procedural defect(s);
- although not required, consider including a copy of rule 14a-8 with the notice of defect(s);
- explicitly state that the shareholder proponent must transmit his or her response to the company's notice within 14 calendar days of receiving the notice of defect(s); and
- send the notification by a means that allows the company to determine when the shareholder proponent received the letter.
We believe that this guidance continues to be of significant benefit to companies, and we urge all companies to consider it when drafting notices of defect(s) under rule 14a-8.
2. Is there any further guidance to companies with regard to what their notices of defect(s) should state about demonstrating proof of the shareholder proponent's ownership?
Yes. If the company cannot determine whether the shareholder satisfies the rule 14a-8 minimum ownership requirements, the company should request that the shareholder provide proof of ownership that satisfies the requirements of rule 14a-8. The company should use language that tracks rule 14a-8(b), which states that the shareholder proponent "must" prove its eligibility by submitting:
- the shareholder proponent's written statement that he or she intends to continue holding the shares through the date of the company's annual or special meeting; and
- a written statement from the "record" holder of the securities (usually a broker or bank) verifying that, at the time the shareholder proponent submitted the proposal, the shareholder proponent continuously held the securities for at least one year; or
- a copy of a filed Schedule 13D, Schedule 13G, Form 3, Form 4, Form 5, or amendments to those documents or updated forms, reflecting the shareholder proponent's ownership of shares as of or before the date on which the one-year eligibility period begins and the shareholder proponent's written statement that he or she continuously held the required number of shares for the one-year period as of the date of the statement.
We have expressed the view consistently that a company does not meet its obligation to provide appropriate notice of defects in a shareholder proponent's proof of ownership where the company refers the shareholder proponent to rule 14a-8(b) but does not either:
- address the specific requirements of that rule in the notice; or
- attach a copy of rule 14a-8(b) to the notice.
D. What are the consequences if the staff denies a company's request for a waiver of rule 14a-8(j)'s 80-day requirement? Will the company have to wait 80 days to file its definitive proxy materials?
No, the company is not required to wait 80 days to file its definitive proxy materials. Rule 14a-8(j) provides that if the company intends to exclude a proposal from its proxy materials, it must file its reasons with the Commission no later than 80 calendar days before it files its definitive proxy statement and form of proxy with the Commission. Rule 14a-8(j) also requires the company to simultaneously provide the shareholder proponent with a copy of its submission. The staff may permit the company to make its submission later than 80 days before the company files its definitive proxy statement and form of proxy if the company demonstrates "good cause" for missing the deadline. In that instance, the failure to comply with rule 14a-8(j) would not require the company to delay its filing date until the expiration of 80 days from the date that it submits its no-action request. The most common basis for the company's showing of good cause is that the proposal was not submitted timely and the company did not receive the proposal until after the 80-day deadline had passed.
There are instances in which the staff will not agree that a company has demonstrated good cause for failing to make its rule 14a-8 submission at least 80 days before the intended filing of its definitive proxy materials. In those instances, we generally will consider the bases upon which the company intends to exclude a proposal, as we believe that is an appropriate exercise of our responsibilities under rule 14a-8. When we advise such a company and the shareholder proponent of our views regarding the application of rule 14a-8 to the proposal, we also will advise them of our view that the company has not followed the appropriate procedure under rule 14a-8. As noted above, our response in that situation would not require the company to wait to file its proxy materials until 80 days after its rule 14a-8 submission. Companies that have not demonstrated good cause for failing to make a timely rule 14a-8 submission should be aware that, despite our expression of a view with regard to the application of the eligibility or substantive requirements of rule 14a-8 to a proposal, the filing of their definitive proxy materials before the expiration of the 80-day time period in that situation may not be in accordance with the procedural requirements of rule 14a-8. Further, companies should note that, in issuing such a response, we are making no determination as to the appropriateness of filing definitive proxy materials less than 80 days after the date of the rule 14a-8(j) submission.
We will consider the timeliness of a rule 14a-8 no-action request in determining whether to respond. We reserve the right to decline to respond to rule 14a-8 no-action requests if the company does not comply with the time frame in rule 14a-8(j).
E. When should companies and shareholder proponents provide a supporting opinion of counsel and what should counsel to companies and shareholder proponents consider in drafting such an opinion?
Rule 14a-8(i)(1) and rule 14a-8(i)(2) permit the company to exclude a proposal if it meets its burden of demonstrating that the proposal is improper under state law or that the proposal, if implemented, would cause the company to violate any state, federal, or foreign law to which it is subject. Rule 14a-8(i)(6) permits the company to exclude a proposal if it meets its burden of demonstrating that the company would lack the power or authority to implement the proposal. Rule 14a-8(j)(2)(iii) requires the company to provide the Commission with a supporting opinion of counsel when the asserted reasons for exclusion are based on matters of state or foreign law. In submitting such an opinion of counsel, the company and its counsel should consider whether the law underlying the opinion of counsel is unsettled or unresolved and, whenever possible, the opinion of counsel should cite relevant legislative authority or judicial precedents regarding the opinion of counsel.
Proposals that would result in the company breaching existing contractual obligations may be excludable under rule 14a-8(i)(2), rule 14a-8(i)(6), or both, because implementing the proposal would require the company to violate applicable law or would not be within the power or authority of the company to implement. If a company asserts either of these bases for exclusion in its rule 14a-8 submission, it expedites the staff's review and often assists the company in meeting its burden of demonstrating that it may exclude the proposal when the company provides a copy of the relevant contract, cites specific provisions of the contract that would be violated, and explains how implementation of the proposal would cause the company to breach its obligations under that contract. The submission also should provide a supporting opinion of counsel or indicate that the arguments advanced under state or foreign law constitute the opinion of counsel.
In analyzing an opinion of counsel that is submitted under rule 14a-8(j)(2)(iii), we consider whether counsel is licensed to practice law in the jurisdiction where the law is at issue. We also consider the extent to which the opinion makes assumptions about the operation of the proposal that are not called for by the language of the proposal. Shareholder proponents who wish to contest a company's reliance on an opinion of counsel as to matters of state or foreign law may, but are not required to, submit an opinion of counsel supporting their position.
F. What should companies and shareholder proponents know about how we process no-action requests?
1. Availability of materials provided to us
Commission rule 82, which can be found at 17 CFR § 200.82, reads as follows (citations are omitted):
Materials filed with the Commission pursuant to rule 14a-8(d) under the Securities Exchange Act of 1934 [the predecessor of current rule 14a-8(j)], written communications related thereto received from any person, and each related no-action letter or other written communication issued by the staff of the Commission, shall be made available to any person upon request for inspection or copying.
In adopting rule 82, the Commission stated, "all materials required to be filed with the Commission pursuant to proxy rule 14a-8[j] will be considered public records of the Commission. [Rule 82] also provides for the public availability of written communications related to the materials filed pursuant to rule 14a-8[(j)] which may be voluntarily submitted by shareholder-proponents or other persons." See Exchange Act Release No. 9785 (September 22, 1972). As such, when a company submits a no-action request, we forward a copy of the request to the Commission's Public Reference Room immediately.
In order to ensure that the staff's process is fair to all parties, we base our determinations on the written materials provided to us. While we will respond to telephone questions from the company or the shareholder proponent regarding the status of a request, we do not discuss the substantive nature of any specific no-action request with either the company or the shareholder proponent. Therefore, we request that any additional information that the company or the shareholder proponent would like to provide be submitted to us and the other party in writing.
2. Availability of responses
After we have completed our review of a no-action request, we generally send our response to the request by mail to both the shareholder proponent who submitted the proposal and the company that submitted the request. In addition, we forward a copy of our response, along with the relevant correspondence, to the Commission's Public Reference Room at the time that we issue the response. Commercial databases that check the Public Reference Room routinely for new no-action responses issued by the Division often upload the responses to their systems. As a result, the company or the shareholder proponent often may find our response in the Public Reference Room or on a commercial database prior to their receipt of that response.
3. Facilitating prompt, consistent delivery of responses to companies and shareholder proponents
During the highest volume periods of the rule 14a-8 season, the mailing of our no-action responses may be delayed and the company and the shareholder proponent may not receive the copies that are sent by mail immediately after the issuance of our no-action response. As such, we may fax copies of our responses in order to ensure that shareholder proponents and companies are given timely responses and to avoid prejudicing either party unnecessarily in resolving disputes that may arise in connection with the rule 14a-8 no-action requests. When we have a fax number for both the company and the shareholder proponent, we will fax our response to each if we are unable to mail the response promptly; when we have a fax number for the company but not for the shareholder proponent, we will fax the response to the company where the company agrees to forward promptly our response to the shareholder proponent. It is important to note that the practice of faxing copies of our no-action responses is a courtesy and is not required by Commission rules.
In order to facilitate the prompt delivery of our responses by providing us as much contact information regarding the shareholder proponent as possible, companies should provide us with all relevant correspondence when submitting a no-action request. In this regard, our review is facilitated best when a company's correspondence with us includes the shareholder proposal, any cover letter that the shareholder proponent provided with the proposal, the shareholder's address and fax number, and any other correspondence the company has exchanged with the shareholder relating to the proposal.
We hope that this bulletin, along with SLB No. 14 and SLB No. 14A, helps you gain a better understanding of rule 14a-8, the no-action request process, and our views on some significant issues and questions that arise commonly during our review of rule 14a-8 no-action requests. We believe that these bulletins contain information that will assist in the efficient operation of the rule 14a-8 process for both companies and shareholders.