ATTORNEY: MARC I. GROSS AND MICHAEL GRUNFELD
POMERANTZ MONITOR: MAY/JUNE 2019
Last year it was revealed that Johnson & Johnson (“J&J”) had knowingly marketed talcum powder containing asbestos, which may have caused ovarian cancer in consumers. This revelation caused J&J’s stock price to plummet and triggered a securities fraud class action on behalf of investors. In an effort to thwart that class action and others, Professor Hal S. Scott, the Director of the Program on International Financial Systems at Harvard Law School, representing a small J&J shareholder, submitted a proxy proposal to the Company for a shareholder vote to approve a corporate bylaw that would require all securities fraud claims against the company be pursued through mandatory arbitration, and would waive class action rights.
Such a proposal, if adopted, would sound the death knell for all securities claims against the company. In particular, prohibiting class actions would make it economically unfeasible, in almost all cases, for anyone but the largest shareholders to bring such an action.
J&J decided to reject this proposal because it would violate state law, and obtained a No Action Letter from the SEC, indicating that the agency would not object to exclusion of the proposal. Undeterred, Professor Scott filed an action in Federal District Court in New Jersey contesting the rejection, in an action called The Doris Behr 2012 Irrevocable Trust v. Johnson & Johnson. The court denied Professor Scott’s motion for an order compelling J&J to include the Proxy Proposal for the shareholder meeting that recently took place, on grounds that the motion was too late for this year. Nonetheless, the case will continue on the merits and there is little doubt that Professor Scott will pursue the proposal next year. While to date J&J has excluded the proposal from its proxy materials, there is no certainty that it will do so in the future. Pomerantz has been retained by the Colorado Public Employees’ Retirement Association (“Colorado PERA”) to intervene in the Proxy Litigation to ensure that investors’ rights are protected. We believe that Colorado PERA, a large J&J investor that is also a putative class member in the pending class action arising from underlying securities fraud claims, is ideally suited to represent shareholders’ interests—including their appellate rights—in the Proxy Litigation.
Historically, the Securities and Exchange Commission (“SEC”) has opposed proposals to mandate arbitration of claims brought by IPO and open market purchasers. More recently, in response to questions posed at Congressional hearings in early 2018, SEC Chairman Jay Clayton committed to hold public hearings if the Commission rethought its position. Pomerantz and institutional investors such as Colorado PERA have been at the forefront of explaining to the SEC why such proposals are contrary to law and public policy supporting shareholder rights.
Our objection is based on the proposition that corporate bylaw provisions, such as the proposal here, violate the “internal affairs” doctrine that is a fundamental principle of state corporate law. As then-Chancellor Leo Strine (who is now Chief Justice of the Delaware Supreme Court) set out in Boilermakers Local 154 Ret. Fund v. Chevron Corp., under Delaware law, the “internal affairs” doctrine limits corporate bylaws to regulation of intra corporate disputes between management and shareholders, such as breaches of fiduciary duty and waste. Bylaws cannot govern “external relationships” between third-party contractors and investors whose claims arise from deception when they purchased their shares. Consistent with that rule, on December 11, 2018, in Sciabacucchi v. Salzberg, the Delaware Court of Chancery rejected Blue Apron’s adoption of a bylaw mandating that Securities Act claims be filed only in federal court. The court based this decision on the “internal affairs” doctrine, explaining that “there is no reason to believe that corporate governance documents, regulated by the law of the state of incorporation, can dictate mechanisms for bringing claims that do not concern corporate internal affairs, such as claims alleging fraud in connection with a securities sale.” For these reasons, the New Jersey Attorney General issued an opinion on January 29, 2019 stating unequivocally that “the Proposal, if adopted, would cause Johnson & Johnson to violate New Jersey state law [where Johnson & Johnson is incorporated], [and] in the opinion of my office, the Proposal should be excluded” from the Company’s proxy materials. The Attorney General based this determination on the text of the New Jersey Business Corporations Act (including recent amendments to the statute), New Jersey case law, and the Delaware cases described above.
While efforts to date have thwarted imposition of mandatory arbitration on federal securities law claims, continued vigilance is necessary. Professor Scott no doubt hopes to ultimately bring this matter to the U.S. Supreme Court for a ruling on whether the Federal Arbitration Act pre-empts state law restrictions on mandatory arbitration agreements. Starting with AT&T Mobility v. Concepcion, 563 U.S. 333 (2011), the Supreme Court has held that brokerage clients, consumers, employees and others can be compelled by “contract” to arbitrate any disputes. Investors will argue, though, that aside from the Supreme Court’s prior deference to state law for corporate governance matters, there is no “contract” between investors and companies when securities are purchased in the open market. The “contract” is only with the direct seller, and there is certainly no “consent” to the arbitration.
Pomerantz expects challenges will nonetheless arise in this area over the next few years and intends to continue its efforts to protect investor rights.