Summary: This staff legal bulletin provides information for companies and shareholders regarding Rule 14a-8 under the Securities Exchange Act of 1934.
Supplementary Information: The statements in this bulletin represent the views of the Division of Corporation Finance (the “Division”). This bulletin is not a rule, regulation or statement of the Securities and Exchange Commission (the “Commission”). Further, the Commission has neither approved nor disapproved its content.
This bulletin is part of a continuing effort by the Division to provide guidance on important issues arising under Exchange Act Rule 14a-8. Specifically, this bulletin contains information about the Division’s views on:
the scope and application of Rule 14a-8(i)(7);
the scope and application of Rule 14a-8(i)(5);
proposals submitted on behalf of shareholders; and
the use of graphs and images consistent with Rule 14a-8(d).
Rule 14a-8(i)(7), the “ordinary business” exception, is one of the substantive bases for exclusion of a shareholder proposal in Rule 14a-8. It permits a company to exclude a proposal that “deals with a matter relating to the company’s ordinary business operations.” The purpose of the exception is “to confine the resolution of ordinary business problems to management and the board of directors, since it is impracticable for shareholders to decide how to solve such problems at an annual shareholders meeting.”
>>2. The Division’s application of Rule 14a-8(i)(7)
The Commission has stated that the policy underlying the “ordinary business” exception rests on two central considerations. The first relates to the proposal’s subject matter; the second, the degree to which the proposal “micromanages” the company. Under the first consideration, proposals that raise matters that are “so fundamental to management’s ability to run a company on a day-to-day basis that they could not, as a practical matter, be subject to direct shareholder oversight” may be excluded, unless such a proposal focuses on policy issues that are sufficiently significant because they transcend ordinary business and would be appropriate for a shareholder vote. Whether the significant policy exception applies depends, in part, on the connection between the significant policy issue and the company’s business operations.
At issue in many Rule 14a-8(i)(7) no-action requests is whether a proposal that addresses ordinary business matters nonetheless focuses on a policy issue that is sufficiently significant. These determinations often raise difficult judgment calls that the Division believes are in the first instance matters that the board of directors is generally in a better position to determine. A board of directors, acting as steward with fiduciary duties to a company’s shareholders, generally has significant duties of loyalty and care in overseeing management and the strategic direction of the company. A board acting in this capacity and with the knowledge of the company’s business and the implications for a particular proposal on that company’s business is well situated to analyze, determine and explain whether a particular issue is sufficiently significant because the matter transcends ordinary business and would be appropriate for a shareholder vote.
Accordingly, going forward, we would expect a company’s no-action request to include a discussion that reflects the board’s analysis of the particular policy issue raised and its significance. That explanation would be most helpful if it detailed the specific processes employed by the board to ensure that its conclusions are well-informed and well-reasoned. We believe that a well-developed discussion of the board’s analysis of these matters will greatly assist the staff with its review of no-action requests under Rule 14a-8(i)(7).
>C. Rule 14a-8(i)(5)
Rule 14a-8(i)(5), the “economic relevance” exception, is one of the substantive bases for exclusion of a shareholder proposal in Rule 14a-8. It permits a company to exclude a proposal that “relates to operations which account for less than 5 percent of the company’s total assets at the end of its most recent fiscal year, and for less than 5 percent of its net earnings and gross sales for its most recent fiscal year, and is not otherwise significantly related to the company’s business.”
>>2. History of Rule 14a-8(i)(5)
Prior to adoption of the current version of the exclusion in Rule 14a-8(i)(5), the rule permitted companies to omit any proposal that “deals with a matter that is not significantly related to the issuer’s business.” In proposing changes to that version of the rule in 1982, the Commission noted that the staff’s practice had been to agree with exclusion of proposals that bore no economic relationship to a company’s business, but that “where the proposal has reflected social or ethical issues, rather than economic concerns, raised by the issuer’s business, and the issuer conducts any such business, no matter how small, the staff has not issued a no-action letter with respect to the omission of the proposal.” The Commission stated that this interpretation of the rule may have “unduly limit[ed] the exclusion,” and proposed adopting the economic tests that appear in the rule today. In adopting the rule, the Commission characterized it as relating “to proposals concerning the functioning of the economic business of an issuer and not to such matters as shareholders’ rights, e.g., cumulative voting.”
Shortly after the 1983 amendments, however, the District Court for the District of Columbia in Lovenheim v. Iroquois Brands, Ltd., 618 F. Supp. 554 (D.D.C. 1985) preliminarily enjoined a company from excluding a proposal regarding sales of a product line that represented only 0.05% of assets, $79,000 in sales and a net loss of ($3,121), compared to the company’s total assets of $78 million, annual revenues of $141 million and net earnings of $6 million. The court based its decision to grant the injunction “in light of the ethical and social significance” of the proposal and on “the fact that it implicates significant levels of sales.” Since that time, the Division has interpreted Lovenheim in a manner that has significantly narrowed the scope of Rule 14a-8(i)(5).
>>3. The Division’s application of Rule 14a-8(i)(5)
Over the years, the Division has only infrequently agreed with exclusion under the “economic relevance” exception. Under its historical application, the Division has not agreed with exclusion under Rule 14a-8(i)(5), even where a proposal has related to operations that accounted for less than 5% of total assets, net earnings and gross sales, where the company conducted business, no matter how small, related to the issue raised in the proposal. The Division’s analysis has not focused on a proposal’s significance to the company’s business. As a result, the Division’s analysis has been similar to its analysis prior to 1983, with which the Commission expressed concern.
That analysis simply considered whether a company conducted any amount of business related to the issue in the proposal and whether that issue was of broad social or ethical concern. We believe the Division’s application of Rule 14a-8(i)(5) has unduly limited the exclusion’s availability because it has not fully considered the second prong of the rule as amended in 1982 – the question of whether the proposal “deals with a matter that is not significantly related to the issuer’s business” and is therefore excludable. Accordingly, going forward, the Division’s analysis will focus, as the rule directs, on a proposal’s significance to the company’s business when it otherwise relates to operations that account for less than 5% of total assets, net earnings and gross sales. Under this framework, proposals that raise issues of social or ethical significance may be included or excluded, notwithstanding their importance in the abstract, based on the application and analysis of each of the factors of Rule 14a-8(i)(5) in determining the proposal’s relevance to the company’s business.
Because the test only allows exclusion when the matter is not “otherwise significantly related to the company,” we view the analysis as dependent upon the particular circumstances of the company to which the proposal is submitted. That is, a matter significant to one company may not be significant to another. On the other hand, we would generally view substantive governance matters to be significantly related to almost all companies.
Where a proposal’s significance to a company’s business is not apparent on its face, a proposal may be excludable unless the proponent demonstrates that it is “otherwise significantly related to the company’s business.” For example, the proponent can provide information demonstrating that the proposal “may have a significant impact on other segments of the issuer’s business or subject the issuer to significant contingent liabilities.” The proponent could continue to raise social or ethical issues in its arguments, but it would need to tie those to a significant effect on the company’s business. The mere possibility of reputational or economic harm will not preclude no-action relief. In evaluating significance, the staff will consider the proposal in light of the “total mix” of information about the issuer.
As with the “ordinary business” exception in Rule 14a-8(i)(7), determining whether a proposal is “otherwise significantly related to the company’s business” can raise difficult judgment calls. Similarly, we believe that the board of directors is generally in a better position to determine these matters in the first instance. A board acting with the knowledge of the company’s business and the implications for a particular proposal on that company’s business is better situated than the staff to determine whether a particular proposal is “otherwise significantly related to the company’s business.” Accordingly, we would expect a company’s Rule 14a-8(i)(5) no-action request to include a discussion that reflects the board’s analysis of the proposal’s significance to the company. That explanation would be most helpful if it detailed the specific processes employed by the board to ensure that its conclusions are well-informed and well-reasoned.
In addition, the Division’s analysis of whether a proposal is “otherwise significantly related” under Rule 14a-8(i)(5) has historically been informed by its analysis under the “ordinary business” exception, Rule 14a-8(i)(7). As a result, the availability or unavailability of Rule 14a-8(i)(7) has been largely determinative of the availability or unavailability of Rule 14a-8(i)(5). Going forward, the Division will no longer look to its analysis under Rule 14a-8(i)(7) when evaluating arguments under Rule 14a-8(i)(5). In our view, applying separate analytical frameworks will ensure that each basis for exclusion serves its intended purpose.
We believe the approach going forward is more appropriately rooted in the intended purpose and language of Rule 14a-8(i)(5), and better helps companies, proponents and the staff determine whether a proposal is “otherwise significantly related to the company’s business.”
>D. Proposals submitted on behalf of shareholders
While Rule 14a-8 does not address shareholders’ ability to submit proposals through a representative, shareholders frequently elect to do so, a practice commonly referred to as “proposal by proxy.” The Division has been, and continues to be, of the view that a shareholder’s submission by proxy is consistent with Rule 14a-8.
The Division is nevertheless mindful of challenges and concerns that proposals by proxy may present. For example, there may be questions about whether the eligibility requirements of Rule 14a-8(b) have been satisfied. There have also been concerns raised that shareholders may not know that proposals are being submitted on their behalf. In light of these challenges and concerns, and to help the staff and companies better evaluate whether the eligibility requirements of Rule 14a-8(b) have been satisfied, going forward, the staff will look to whether the shareholders who submit a proposal by proxy provide documentation describing the shareholder’s delegation of authority to the proxy. In general, we would expect this documentation to:
identify the shareholder-proponent and the person or entity selected as proxy;
identify the company to which the proposal is directed;
identify the annual or special meeting for which the proposal is submitted;
identify the specific proposal to be submitted (e.g., proposal to lower the threshold for calling a special meeting from 25% to 10%); and
be signed and dated by the shareholder.
We believe this documentation will help alleviate concerns about proposals by proxy, and will also help companies and the staff better evaluate whether the eligibility requirements of Rule 14a-8(b) have been satisfied in connection with a proposal’s submission by proxy. Where this information is not provided, there may be a basis to exclude the proposal under Rule 14a-8(b).
>E. Rule 14a-8(d)
Rule 14a-8(d) is one of the procedural bases for exclusion of a shareholder proposal in Rule 14a-8. It provides that a “proposal, including any accompanying supporting statement, may not exceed 500 words.”
>>2. The use of images in shareholder proposals
Questions have recently arisen concerning the application of Rule 14a-8(d) to proposals that include graphs and/or images. In two recent no-action decisions, the Division expressed the view that the use of “500 words” and absence of express reference to graphics or images in Rule 14a-8(d) do not prohibit the inclusion of graphs and/or images in proposals. Just as companies include graphics that are not expressly permitted under the disclosure rules, the Division is of the view that Rule 14a-8(d) does not preclude shareholders from using graphics to convey information about their proposals.
The Division recognizes the potential for abuse in this area. The Division believes, however, that these potential abuses can be addressed through other provisions of Rule 14a-8. For example, exclusion of graphs and/or images would be appropriate under Rule 14a-8(i)(3) where they:
make the proposal materially false or misleading;
render the proposal so inherently vague or indefinite that neither the stockholders voting on the proposal, nor the company in implementing it, would be able to determine with any reasonable certainty exactly what actions or measures the proposal requires;
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; or
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 he or she is being asked to vote.
Exclusion would also be appropriate under Rule 14a-8(d) if the total number of words in a proposal, including words in the graphics, exceeds 500.
See Staff Legal Bulletin No. 14H (Oct. 22, 2015), citing Staff Legal Bulletin No. 14E (Oct. 27, 2009) (stating that a proposal generally will not be excludable “as long as a sufficient nexus exists between the nature of the proposal and the company”).
Companies that intend to seek exclusion under Rule 14a-8(b) based on a shareholder’s failure to provide some or all of this information must notify the proponent of the specific defect(s) within 14 calendar days of receiving the proposal so that the proponent has an opportunity to cure the defect. See Rule 14a-8(f)(1).
Companies should not minimize or otherwise diminish the appearance of a shareholder’s graphic. For example, if the company includes its own graphics in its proxy statement, it should give similar prominence to a shareholder’s graphics. If a company’s proxy statement appears in black and white, however, the shareholder proposal and accompanying graphics may also appear in black and white.