Pomerantz LLP

SEC Reverses Its Own Whole Foods Ruling

ATTORNEY: H. Adam Prussin

As we have been reporting for years, corporate America has been at war with activist investors who want the right of “proxy access,” which would allow them to propose nominees for director that can appear on the companies’ own proxy statements. Not too long ago, the SEC backpedaled from a proposed rule that would have granted automatic proxy access to investors who had held a certain percentage of the company’s outstanding shares for an extended period of time. This proposal is now in seemingly eternal limbo.

Instead, investors have sought to put the issue of proxy access to a shareholder vote on a company by company basis. For example, Scott M. Stringer, the New York City comptroller and overseer of five city pension funds with $160 billion in assets, recently put forward proposals at 75 companies that would allow shareholders to nominate directors. In response to these and other similar efforts, some companies have tried to pre-empt those requests by proposing, instead, their own watered-down version of similar proposals – typically with much higher threshold requirements the shareholder would have to meet. An SEC rule states that a shareholder proposal can be excluded if it “directly conflicts with one of the company’s own proposals to be submitted to shareholders at the same meeting.”

Whole Foods is a case in point. A Whole Foods investor proposed that investors holding 3 percent of the grocer’s shares for at least three years be allowed to nominate directors at the company. Whole Foods asked for permission to exclude the proposal last fall, saying that it planned to put its own proposal on director elections to a shareholder vote. Under management’s proposal, an investor interested in nominating directors had to own a far larger stake and to have held it for much longer than in the investor’s proposal.

In its original ruling, issued December 1, the SEC staff granted a no action letter to Whole Foods, allowing it to exclude the shareholder proxy access proposal. Shortly afterwards, 18 other companies asked for no action letters permitting them to do the same. This caused a backlash from institutional investors who viewed this tactic as a too-convenient way for companies to avoid putting more aggressive proxy access proposals to a shareholder vote, and who began asking the SEC to revisit its Whole Foods decision.

On January 16, the SEC announced that it had reversed its Whole Foods decision. In a public statement, SEC Commissioner Mary Jo White said that questions had arisen about “the proper scope and application” of the SEC rule on which its staff had relied when making the decision. She also said she had directed the staff to review the rule and report its findings to the full commission. While its review is underway, the SEC said it would make no rulings on requests for no action letters involving shareholder proposals that are similar to those made by management.

Many view this development as handwriting on the wall, predicting that this preemption tactic is going to be prohibited or at least severely curtailed. Still, without a ruling one way or the other just yet, companies will have to decide for themselves whether to include such proposals in their upcoming proxy statements this spring.