Guns, Ordinary Business, and Shareholder Proposals: Reordering the Priorities of the SEC Staff (Part 4)
We are discussing Trinity Wall Street v. Wal-Mart.
Trinity did not simply accept the decision of the staff in allowing Wal-Mart to exclude its proposal. Trinity sought to enjoin Wal-Mart from excluding the proposal from the 2014 proxy materials, essentially asking the court to overturn the determination of the SEC's staff.
The trial judge initially declined to grant a preliminary injunction and viewed the time as inadequate to render a decision on the merits. See Trinity v. Wal-Mart ("The Court could not have resolved the merits of the parties' dispute before Wal-Mart planned to print its proxy materials for the 2014 annual meeting.").
The court, however, eventually resolved the matter and ultimately disagreed with the staff's view on the proposal. From the court's perspective, the matter did not involve the company's ordinary business:
- Trinity's 2014 Proposal is best viewed as dealing with matters that are not related to Wal-Mart's ordinary business operations. Therefore, Trinity's Proposal was not properly excluded from Wal-Mart's 2014 proxy materials under the ordinary business exception of Rule 14a-8(i)(7).
The proposal did not dictate the products that would or would not be sold. Instead, that matter was left to the board:
- At its core, Trinity's Proposal seeks to have Wal-Mart's Board oversee the development and effectuation of a Wal-Mart policy. While such a policy, if formulated and implemented, could (and almost certainly would) shape what products are sold by Wal-Mart, the Proposal does not itself have this consequence. As Trinity acknowledges, the outcome of the Board's deliberations regarding dangerous products is beyond the scope of the Proposal. Any direct impact of adoption of Trinity's Proposal would be felt at the Board level; it would then be for the Board to determine what, if any, policy should be formulated and implemented.
The court also found that, even if arguably involving ordinary business, the public policy exception applied:
- Moreover, to the extent the Proposal "relat[es] to such matters" as which products WalMart may sell, the Proposal nonetheless ''focus[es] on sufficiently significant social policy issues" as to not be excludable, because the Proposal "transcend[s] the day-to-day business matters and raise[s] policy issues so significant that it would be appropriate for a shareholder vote." The significant social policy issues on which the Proposal focuses include the social and community effects of sales of high capacity firearms at the world's largest retailer and the impact this could have on Wal-Mart's reputation, particularly if such a product sold at Wal-Mart is misused and people are injured or killed as a result. In this way, the Proposal implicates significant policy issues that are appropriate for a shareholder vote. Additionally, again consistent with the 1998 Release, the Proposal is not excludable because it does not seek to "micro-manage" Wal-Mart or "prob[e] too deeply into matters of a complex nature upon which shareholders, as a group, would not be in a position to make an informed judgment." The Proposal does not involve "intricate detail" or seek to "impose specific time-frames" or dictate a "method for implementing complex policies."
The court granted Trinity's motion for summary judgment and also granted injunctive relief prohibiting Wal-Mart from relying on the "ordinary business" exclusion with respect to the proposal in the 2015 proxy materials. We will discuss the implications of the case in the next post.
The decision is posted at the DU Corporate Governance web site.