Guns, Ordinary Business, and Shareholder Proposals: Reordering the Priorities of the SEC Staff (Part 1)
Rule 14a-8 permits shareholders to submit proposals to companies for inclusion in the proxy statement. See 17 CFR 240.14a-8. The rule, however, provides multiple grounds for excluding a proposal.
The rule also provides a process whereby companies wanting to exclude proposals can obtain a no action letter from the staff of the SEC. The staff routinely grants these letters. In 2014, the staff acceded to the company's request to exclude proposals in 71% of the cases; in 2013, the percentage was 65%. Proposals are most often excluded because of procedural errors or are deemed by the staff to be vague or misleading.
The most common substantive basis for excluding proposals is the "ordinary business" exclusion. See Rule 14a-8(i)(7) (allowing exclusion "If the proposal deals with a matter relating to the company's ordinary business operations"). With little case law or other sources of insight, the staff has relatively broad latitude to determine whether a matter falls within a corporation's ordinary business.
This exclusion has always been problematic. Proposals involving actions of the corporation invariably touch on the company's business and therefore arguably fall within the exclusion. In the 1950s, a proposal seeking to address segregation was excluded as ordinary business. In the 1960s, a proposal seeking to address the manufacture of napalm was excluded on this basis.
The approach changed somewhat in the 1970s when the Commission adopted what amounted to a public policy exception to the "ordinary business" exclusion. As the Commission stated back in 1976:
- [T]he term “ordinary business operations” has been deemed on occasion to include certain matters which have significant policy, economic or other implications inherent in them. For instance, a proposal that a utility company not construct a proposed nuclear power plant has in the past been considered excludable under former subparagraph (c)(5). In retrospect, however, it seems apparent that the economic and safety considerations attendant to nuclear power plants are of such magnitude that a determination whether to construct one is not an “ordinary” business matter. Accordingly, proposals of that nature, as well as others that have major implications, will in the future be considered beyond the realm of an issuer's ordinary business operations, and future interpretative letters of the Commission's staff will reflect that view.
Exchange Act Release No. 19771 (Nov. 22, 1976). In effect, therefore, proposals implicating a company's ordinary business could still be excluded but not if involving matters of important public policy or debate. For a more thorough discussion of this history, see Essay: The Politicization of Corporate Governance: Bureaucratic Discretion, the SEC, and Shareholder Ratification of Auditors.
From the very beginning, however, the approach raised a number of concerns. First, there were no meaningful standards (nor have any ever been developed) that dictated when a proposal would be a matter of sufficient public concern or debate to override the ordinary business exclusion. As a result, staff decisions in this area can often seem random and subject to unexplained shifts.
Second, the public policy exception had, at some level, the potential to eviscerate the ordinary business exclusion. Shareholders for the most part do not submit proposals that address mundane aspects of a company's business that are unimportant to the public. Instead, they deliberately select matters of interest to the public. As a result, almost every proposal implicating the ordinary business exclusion also implicates the public policy exception.
Ultimately, it is the staff of the SEC that resolves these issues through the no action letter process. For the most part, the decisions of the staff are not subject to review (the Commission rarely accepts an appeal from a staff decision in this area).
This dynamic may, however, be about to change. A shareholder unhappy with the staff's determination appealed to federal district court. The court rejected the staff's reasoning and enjoined the company from omitting the proposal under the "ordinary business" exclusion.